Do What You Love, but Don’t Expect to Get Paid For It

Image by Singopore Sports

Be not simply good; be good for something.
— Thoreau

You hear it everywhere — from the Internet, self-help books, well-meaning friends, teachers, TED talks and TV shows — there seems to be no escape from the mantra: Do what you love, and the money will follow. Follow your dreams. Live your passion.

As with most conventional wisdom, this bit of “advice” is best viewed with suspicion. That goes double for the sort of narcissistic claptrap that feeds people’s fantasies of having whatever they want, on their own terms, without giving a moment’s thought to the needs or desires of others. That sort of mindset may sell lots of books and tickets to seminars, but does it lead to success?

The Parable of the Synchronized Swimmers

During the 2012 Olympics, I would often have lunch at a local sushi bar that would play whatever event was being televised at the time. Seeing as it was pretty much the opposite of prime-time, I got to sample some rather obscure events — like badmitton, women’s water polo, and speed walking. The one that sticks out most in my mind, however, is pairs synchronized swimming. That’s right, synchronized swimming for two.

I watched with what can only be described as bemusement as pair after pair of extremely athletic and agile young ladies bounced and spun around in the water together to various odd music selections. I was even more bemused when the announcer described their brutal training regime. Apart from 6 hours of hard training per day, many of the pairs spent 24 hours a day together, 7 days a week, to “stay in sync.”

Soon afterwards, women’s volleyball came on, and at one point the camera panned to Kobe Bryant, sitting in the stands. I just had to shake my head. The girls who won gold in pairs synchronized swimming were every bit as talented and gifted as Kobe. They were at a roughly equivalent level of physical conditoniong — certaintly in the top .1% in the world. They trained at least as hard as Kobe — harder, I’d be willing to bet. They clearly were every bit as dedicated. But you’ve never heard of them. Their faces will never be on a box of Wheaties. Meanwhile, Kobe rakes in tens of millions per year.

These girls followed their dreams, but chances are they’ll never make a real living off their passion. A few of them may go on to be trainers, but that’s about the best that can be hoped for. Sure, their sport is challenging, and requires a great deal of skill and physical conditioning. Learning to play Tiddly Winks with your butt cheeks would be difficult as well, and would also require a great deal of skill and physical conditioning. Both are more or less equally worthless in the marketplace. (Actually, the butt-cheeks-Tiddly-Winks guy might be better off — at least he’d have a shot at Youtube stardom.)

Now imagine all the girls who trained just as hard, who wanted it just as bad, who were every bit as dedicated and persevering, but didn’t win medals, or didn’t even make it all the way to the Olympics, because they just weren’t lucky enough in the genetic lottery. Tough luck. Them’s the breaks.

Your Passion Is Irrelevant

The world can be a harsh place, and here’s a harsh truth — no one gives a damn about your dreams. No one cares about your passion for Polka music. The guy sitting next to you on the bus doesn’t give two shits about your secret desire to be a puppeteer. And he doesn’t give the square root of shit about a couple of girls’ dreams of winning gold in pairs synchronized swimming.

Tiddly winks. Butt Cheeks.

That guy on the bus does, however, care a great deal about how many three-pointers Kobe Bryant made this season. He’ll talk your ear off about it for the entire ride home. And that’s why Kobe is rich, and the synchronized swimmers aren’t. Kobe puts asses in seats by the hundreds of thousands. The synchronized swimmers bemuse the occasional sushi eater.

This may seem unfair to you, and you’re right — it is unfair. It’s quite unfair for you to feel entitled to have others care enough about your passion to pay you for it, when it doesn’t hold any particular value or appeal for them. You may feel the world ought to appreciate the neo-Shakespearean love sonnets that bring you so much joy to write — that a just, cultured world would value your unique gifts more than a jackass like Kanye West. But like it or not, Kanye figured out how to give people what they want. And no matter how much you may wish otherwise, no matter how steadfastly you refuse to “sell out,” no matter how skilled you are at playing the alphorn, no matter how many hours you practiced, no matter how much you suffered for your craft…

Tiddly Winks. Butt cheeks.

So go ahead, follow your passion and do what you love, but do it for its own sake. Maybe you’ll find a way to earn a living with it, and maybe you won’t. Either way, if you want to be a success, the key is to do what other people love for you to do. Be of service. Fill a need. Stop thinking only of yourself all the time. Ignite passion in other people. If you only do what you love, then no one will care but you.

8 Comments

  1. Eric

    Best thing I’ve read this year.

    • Sean Owen

      Thanks Eric!

  2. Which one are you doing? Purposefully filling a void you know people like/want… or doing something you love?

    • Sean Owen

      Still working for a living, so by definition I’m doing something other people want enough to pay for. I’d also like to think this blog fills a need.

      I do things I love as well, like write music and fiction. Both are pretty awful, but I like to fancy I’m improving. Perhaps one day I’ll be good enough for others to take an interest.

      Being good isn’t enough, though. To be a professional musician, you have to be good AND play music people want to hear. And the latter is vastly more important than the former, as 5 minutes of listening to any top-40 radio station will demonstrate.

      The best guitarist I’ve ever met was never able to earn a living at it, because he wanted desperately to play music in the style of Leon Redbone. Who is Leon Redbone? Exactly. I told the poor fellow more than once that not even Leon Redbone earns all that much being Leon Redbone. How the heck could he?

      (An aside: I happen to like Leon Redbone, but I’m one of the few.)

  3. turtles

    I was really enjoying your blog posts especially the beginning ones one the difference between FI and getting rich, stoicism, and the way you think about wealth. But this is where we are going to have an idealogical parting of the ways. It’s funny because I’ve only recently found FIRE on line community and there is so much I agree with but in almost all these blogs or forums there is a lot of this overly simplistic thinking when it comes to follow your passion. I mean synchronized swimmers vs. kobe bryant? come on…

    Of course you have to figure out how to translate your passion into something the world is moderately interested in but there is also the opposite affect. Your passion can and does change those around you, your community and the world. It’s about managing these two and getting them to meet where you can make a living doing what you love. It’s completely possible. Those that say it isn’t and that you shouldn’t follow your passion are the same as the people who look at the path to financial independence with skepticism. I can’t believe the same person who could write this:

    “One of the biggest challenges you are likely to face if you choose to embark on the path to financial independence, sadly, will come from your friends and family. Chances are some of the people in your inner circle will have a difficult time accepting the changes you make. They might respond with criticism, ridicule, or even downright hostility.

    Theories abound as to why this is so. One of the more plausible ones suggests that people become uncomfortable seeing others do things that they know they ought to be doing themselves, but aren’t. (Ever notice that no one seems genuinely happy for someone who loses a lot of weight?) It has a way of laying bare whatever excuses they may be making.”

    Could also write this post. Just exchange “financial independence” with “follow your passion”.

    Is being great at what you do enough? Of course not. You need a myriad set of skills to make it work and the set that is often ignored by those of the follow your passion crowd is personal finance, investing savvy and any kind of business sense. It isn’t that different from the path of financial independence. It just that most people who want to follow their passion fail because of they fall into two broad categories: The people who know what their passion is early but neglect the other skills they will need in order to turn that passion into a livelihood. OR the people who realize their passion too late and thus are at a huge disadvantage because they don’t have time to build up the necessary overwhelming ability in their area of passion.

    • Sean Owen

      I think we agree more than you imagine. I never said that you can’t make a living following your passion. I just said that whatever you do, if you expect others to pay for it, it must have value for them. And in order to earn a living at something, you’re going to have to convince people to pay you to do it. It’s just that simple. If you can find a way to be of service to others via your passion, then you’ve made it.

      I may come off sounding cynical about this, but it’s not really my intent. What I am trying to say is that, to be a success, you need to follow your passion with a spirit of giving, rather than taking.

      Thanks for writing.

      • turtles

        Sure I do agree 100% with the idea that to be a success you have have to follow your passion with a spirit of giving rather than taking. Not much to argue with there.

        I do admit that many artists are very self centered and don’t understand what the world outside of their own wants and needs. But is this isn’t really a problem that is specific to artists or those who want to follow their passion. You can use that sentence to describe a good portion of the middle class first world.

        The funny thing is there is SO much overlap between the skill set necessary to make a living off of your passion and achieve early financial independence. I find I have a lot in common with the early FIRE crowd. But making a living off of your passion really isn’t as hard as everybody thinks it is. It’s kind of like FI. It’s not nearly as difficult as everybody assumes it is but you do have to be willing to be disciplined, be frugal, be motived, develop a diverse skill set, but hungry to learn, not whine about everything, cultivate a stoic mindset and not get caught up in our mainstream consumer culture. I think the main difference I see between those who are able to make living from their passion is a willingness to take a high risk path early on in their career. If you make careful conservative career choices you’ll end up with a careful conservative career. There is nothing wrong with that at all. But if you are willing to make unconventional career choices and not listen to the chorus of haters who will tell you it’s impossible you will end up with an unconventional career and when you get there you’ll look back you’ll realize that the biggest obstacle from that unconventional passion based career wasn’t that it was impossibly hard to obtain. You’ll realize the biggest obstacle was overcoming your own doubts and the the doubts of others who were constantly trying to convince you to take a more measured and conservative career in the name of perceived safety.

        That’s why it was particularly disappointing to read this post. From your other posts I thought you’d be one who understood that one of the worst things one person can do to another is burden them with their own limitations and doubts. It is rare to find the truly empowering humans among us who inspire us to greatness and to heights we couldn’t imagine for ourselves instead of drag us down with their own self loathing, doubt and regrets.

        I do enjoy your writing though. I wish you nothing but the ultimate success with this blog and I will be an ardent follower. Your intro posts outlining your thoughts on wealth were particularly fantastic. Am also looking forward to your continued series on the pitfalls of index investing. I of course have my own ideas on this but have come to have doubts about the efficiency of index investing based on the same conclusion that you have outlined thus far. I’m wondering if we have come to the same conclusion on possible solutions.

  4. Gerard

    Turtles, I think there’s a fair whack of survivor bias in what you’re describing (which, unfortunately, just fuels the “do what you love” people even more). Yes, all the interesting successful people took chances early in their careers. So did all the boring self-deluded total failures. There’s some sort of efficient market thing going on with dream-following, probably far more than there is with the actual stock market. The bigger the payoff for the least talent or effort, the more people there are who want that thing (sports star, pop star, art star), and the fewer actual openings there are. There’s a grain of truth in “Do what you love and the money will follow”, but often that grain is “Do what you love and you’ll find a way to live on so little that you can pay the bills with a couple of restaurant shifts.” Which is cool… it worked for me all through my twenties, when I was a poor musician. But I was surrounded by equally mediocre/marginal musicians with no sense of their strengths, weaknesses, or potential popular appeal, who spent their time grumbling about The Scene or Sellouts or whatever… until they gave up and went back to working for their parents.

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