Maybe. Maybe not. But before reading any further, please be aware that this article is for those who want to make a living via a hobby-turned-career. If your hobby is a side gig that you love doing, a passion project, or whatever else, carry on and enjoy!
But if you’re trying to make a comfortable, or even reasonable, living as a professional <insert dream job here>, really listen to this:
“Don’t Follow Your Passion” — Mike Rowe
You’re probably thinking, “Wow, this is the least encouraging thing I’ve seen this week.” And you’d be completely wrong. As a matter of fact, this should be a launching pad, offering a brand new outlook for you.
I get asked questions often by people interested in pursuing a career in the music business. Questions such as, “What advice would you give to someone trying to make a career in music?” are difficult ones to answer, but I’m going to be as candid as I can. Many times the answer is something tangible and related to the field, “write as many songs as you can,” “network as often as possible,” etc. These questions have a massive underlying assumption, though…
I’m assuming you have everything else you need to pursue a music career.
The talent. The drive. You need all of that. When I answer that question, I’m assuming those are there. The painful truth is, you may not be cut out for your dream job. Or even if you are, it may not be enough to make ends meet. If you want to be a professional fly collector, you can probably expect to work more than one job to pay the bills. Even more painful to come to grips with, is when it’s just because you’re not a good fit to be a <insert dream job here>. Many times, people won’t tell you.
This is why American Idol has entire segments dedicated to terrible auditions, because 99% of the time no one told those people that they should probably pick a different avenue of expression, so they show up and make a fool of themselves.
I play guitar. I love playing guitar. However, I’m not even remotely the best guitarist out of my musician friends, nor am I half the songwriter, composer or musician in general that most of them are. But the good news is that talent isn’t everything! And I’m fully aware of the limitations of my talent and I make the most of what talent I do have. I love playing music and it makes me happy to create it. Skill is definitely a major part of the equation in an art-based career field though, I don’t want to undermine that. We’ll go into detail on skills/knowledge in a second.
Also, the thoughts below can be applied to any career field.
Three important questions influence the probability of your dream being realized.
What this question really means:
Are yours skills/knowledge up to or over par?
Are you bringing something new to the table?
Do people care about what/how you do it?
What this question DOES NOT mean:
Do you think yours skills/knowledge are up to or over par?
Do you feel like your work is better than others?
Do you think people care about what/how you do it?
Your opinion on these questions rarely matters, if it’s in not in agreement with anyone else’s. That doesn’t mean if you fail 100 times and everyone is telling you to quit, that you should give up, but you should definitely do some hardcore analysis at that point. It means you should make 100% sure that the reason you’re failing isn’t because you shouldn’t be doing aforementioned thing, which is possible and often times the case, but rather that it’s just because your time hasn’t come yet.
This is a tough thing to wrestle with, because depending on your type of personality, your internal dialogue is going to lean one of two ways. If you’re honest with yourself, parts of you (again, even if you don’t want to admit it) have to lean towards one of the two extremes: “I’m God’s gift to earth” or “I’m a gift to no one.” If you’re the God’s-gift-to-earth type, you probably read this question as exactly what I listed it to not mean. If you’re the gift-to-no-one, you read it as “I’m none of these things.” Basically, those two types of inner voices are synonymous with pride and timidity, respectively. Both are lonely places to be, and typically unfruitful.
The key is the happy medium. It’s a mindset full of reasonable confidence, self-awareness, and humility. To get there, you must ride the line between both inner voice extremes, correcting your course whenever you drift too far towards one side.
It helps to have friends who celebrate in your successes, but also have the nerve to tell you when to stop. “Yes” men will do you no favors, and naysayers are equally as toxic. Find good, honest people, and listen to them when they speak. The key word here is listen. Do not follow blindly… that’s an entirely different discussion altogether.
Also, be honest with yourself. And that doesn’t mean be your own worst critic all the time. Know your strengths and weaknesses and be real with yourself. I’m not a singer, but I love singing. If I took lessons, I might be halfway decent. But in my voice’s current state, I’m a mediocre background vocalist at best, and pitch correction is my friend when I’m recording my own tunes. And I’m totally ok with that! I get a lot of joy out of singing. If I just do it for fun for the rest of my life and it brings me happiness, that’s awesome. However, without some serious work I’d probably be hard-pressed to make a living with just my voice. This is part of knowing my limits and working within them.
Guitar is my strength and happens to be a passion of mine, so I lean on that for my creative and performance abilities. I don’t have to be the best guitarist that ever lived to do that, and you don’t have to be the fastest pipe-fixer alive to make a decent living as a plumber either.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t work on your weaknesses to see if you can improve, or that you can’t overcome anything sent your way. Plenty of people have overcome incredible odds to live out their passions (Google “Bethany Hamilton”), even if everything was stacked against them.
I will say this though: they are the exception.
Doesn’t mean you can’t be too, but be realistic when you’re setting goals and expectations by asking yourself the above questions.
You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be able to truthfully answer “yes” to those three questions that make up the bigger question, “Are you qualified?”
2. Are you married to your passion?
As a musician, I know all about being 150% into what you love. However, the times in my life that I’ve stopped holding onto my dream like my soul depended on it, is when doors flew open and my dream flourished. This is a fact of life. The tighter you hold onto something, the more you’ll suffocate it.
The unfortunate part about this question is there’s really only one way to control how tightly you’re coupled to your dream: detach from it. Which sounds super scary, but it’s really not.
The easiest way that I’ve found to do this, is to find other passions! I tour full-time in a band called VERIDIA, but I also do freelance web development (trevorhinesley.com), and I own a business called Soundstripe with some of my close friends.
Have you ever heard of the term burnout? It’s a very real thing. Whether your passion is your job or not, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. It is imperative that you make time for family, friends, leisure, etc. You know… that thing called life.
Many people say, and I’ve said it myself, “I love this too much, I’ll never get burned out.” You might as well be declaring, “I’m going to burn out.” This is foreshadowing at its finest. I’ve been there.
“‘I love this too much, I’ll never get burned out.’ You might as well be declaring, ‘I’m going to burn out.’”
You must be honest with yourself, and make time for other things even if you don’t want to. If you’ve been reading this and your walls are still up, or you’re assuming I’m hinting at being a money hungry, corporate robot that shouldn’t have dreams because you’re not good enough, you’re hearing me wrong. This isn’t all about money, but we need money to survive, and by reading this, you said you wanted at least some level of a comfortable life.
I’m also not implying that you should spend all of your time on every one of your different passions (or even on a bunch of jobs in order to keep one passion moving while you pay the bills). I’ve had to learn this the hard way. It’s a blast to do the things you love. It’s not a blast to miss out on so many other things that life has to offer, the most important things: relationships and experiences.
When you’re able to split your time into other things, you’re not constantly thinking about your dream. It gives your head a break. It’s good to be focused; generally speaking, it’s notgood to be obsessed. This prevents anxiety, stress, and a myriad of other unhealthy things that come along with being a workaholic. Even if it’s a hobby, you can be a hobbyholic.
Trust me, I’m the king of anxiety and stacking too much on my plate, so I’ve learned a thing or two about how to manage that properly, and when to say, “no.” And I am still very much a work-in-progress.
3. Do you have a backup?
This is paramount. When you see people on stage, what you don’t realize is even the most successful of them are typically involved in other things. Before and sometimes after shows, I’m typically working on my computer. My band’s other guitarist, Brandon, owns a company and manages 10–15 employees from the road. Kyle, our drummer, runs a handyman business, does custom furniture, and owns a custom drum company. We all love playing music, but we love and do other things too, and those help sustain us while we pursue our dream of playing music.
My parents instilled in me a strong desire to get a college degree before I pursued music. They wouldn’t have forced me to get a degree, but I saw how important they thought it was, and that same value trickled down to me. However, not everyone should go to college. In fact, I’d say most people should probably not go to college. It can be a massive waste of time, money and energy. Particularly if you squander it on a meaningless subject, or don’t apply yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, learning things that don’t always result in financial gain is a fantastic way to broaden your horizons and deepen your understanding of the world and its workings, but spending $100k to do so, especially when you’re the one going into debt, with no viable way of recouping that money once a diploma is in your hand, is unideal to say the least.
For me, music was (is) my thing. I attended Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and my original goal was to pursue a degree in Audio Engineering (basically, recording music). My roommate in college suggested I try a computer science course to take care of my math credit, so I did that my second semester. I fell in love, and wound up adding that as a second major. I kept my audio degree and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in both.
My only internship wound up being on the computer science side, because the studio field was getting harder and harder to enter. I have many friends who make a killer living doing studio work, but I was a bit wary and wanted another backup. I also did quite a few EP’s and LP’s for local bands, learning that it was taking up anywhere from 8–12 hours of my day and I didn’t even enjoy it. So I focused more on the computer side of tech stuff.
When I graduated, I was struggling to find a job that would hire me knowing my band was about to start touring full-time soon.
I met a guy who is still a mentor and good friend to me today, Rob Humphreys. He gave me a job when no one else was willing to take a chance on a kid with no experience. He even ended our hiring conversation with “I want to help you pursue both of your dreams [talking about music and tech].”
And that’s exactly what he did. I still work with Rob in different capacities today, and that friendship has led to many other meaningful relationships and business partnerships that have allowed me to do what I love in music (by working remotely and keeping the bills paid while I’m gone) and in tech.
The moral of that story is if you want to make a comfortable living while/by pursuing your dream, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan. And make it one that you’re good at and will pay the bills. If it wasn’t for tech, I literally wouldn’t be able to be in the band I’m in, and my bucket list would have a lot fewer checkmarks.
Again, I’m not talking about being money-driven all the time. But if you plan on having a family one day, they’ll need to eat. If you want your kids to have it as good or better than you did, income cannot be an afterthought. You need shelter, security, insurance, etc. All of these things are important, and to what extent you need them just depends on the kind of lifestyle you want!
“If you want your kids to have it as good or better than you did, income cannot be an afterthought.”
I hope this was encouraging, and offered a different perspective on how to realistically pursue your dreams. I’m hoping you walk away from this encouraged and better equipped to make that next step, whether that’s to turn up the gas, find another outlet to pursue, or just enjoy your passion as a hobby. It’s a big world, and there’s plenty of opportunities.
If someone can turn septic-tank cleaning into a passion project, one which made them millions (see the video above), and which also allowed them to help other people, provide for a family, etc., then the doors are wide open for you to find joy in any job you want. Just be smart about it, you guitar-playing, cheesecake-manufacturing falconer you. Good luck!