“Do what you love. Love what you do,” may be the most cliché piece of career advice circulating among millennials at the moment. And yet despite its popularity, a number of critics have poked holes in this mantra, finding flaws in this fairytale suggestion. So many of us are left confused, oscillating between inspired and jaded. What am I doing with my life? Am I going to do this forever? What job would I have if I could pick? What do I even love doing? For most of our friends and family who are debating a career change, the temptation of “do what you love” hovers like a ghost, taunting those without a clear passion and stirring up discontent because aren’t we all looking around enviously at people who really are doing what they love?
My thought is at once yes, and no. After nearly five years of running our business, I would say that I am absolutely doing what I love. But the funny thing is, as our business grows, I find myself doing less and less of what I truly love, and more and more of the things required of me in order to have the privilege of doing a little bit of what I love.
My earliest lesson in the irony of “doing what you love” was on Career Day in fifth grade, when I shadowed a local vet. My veterinarian aspirations were based solely on the fact that my 11-year-old-self absolutely loved animals. But about 4 hours, a couple of canine teeth cleanings, and five graphic neuterings later, I realized that loving dogs was not the same as being a vet, and that no amount of passion for pets would supply me the grit required to make that my career. When it comes to career insight, that will forever be one of the most illuminating experiences of my life. Sadly, vets don’t pet and cuddle animals all day – there’s a whole world of unseen hard work that goes into making something that you love your career. And certainly, loving something doesn’t necessitate that you make it your day job.
I first knew I wanted a career in the creative field in middle school, when I thought doing pencil portraits of family members and classic rock stars might one day pay the bills. Teachers scolded me for reading under my desk while they were lecturing, but I could technically work on drawings and appear like I was taking notes, so each day was spent deceptively looking studious but instead filling the pages of my sketchbooks. Fast forward to high school, where every second of my spare time was spent in the art department – fumbling through graphic design in a dark computer lab, navigating Adobe’s earliest drafts of Photoshop on a clunky Windows computer. I spent my afternoons in the corner of the art room hunched over an easel, when iPods were first released and we were only permitted to have earbuds in while we worked. My “happy place” at school was introverting in the paint studio, music in my ears and art in my eyes, experimenting with watercolor and oil painting. I fantasized about being a fine painter one day – commissioned to create for strangers who wanted to pay me to do what I loved. Nevermind the fact that I didn’t know any actual painters who got paid to do that sort of thing. Looking back, it was a little bit like the high school basketball star just assuming he’d play for the NBA one day. No big deal.
The funny thing about the things we love doing is that rarely are they purely profitable. Hobbies aren’t business plans – and unfortunately, no matter how skilled a person is at something like playing the guitar, and no matter how much they love it, they’re bound to endure the life of a struggling musician with a lack of paid gigs. As for the lucky few whose stars align and they make it big? Good for them. And good for you, too, if that’s what you’re content holding out for. But we have to stop equating passion with profitability. There is no direct correlation between our love for something and its ability to provide for us. Even Elizabeth Gilbert, famed writer and current unofficial spokesperson for creative living, encourages us in her book Big Magic not to extinguish our creativity by demanding that it pay our bills.
So what are we to do? Throw our passions down the drain and get a 9-5 to provide? Faithfully hone our hobbies until we’re experts, hoping our enthusiasm will one day pay off – literally? I don’t know that I have the answer, but I will share our experience.
Brad’s a woodworker at heart. He’s a detail-oriented artist, whose heart and hands were created to create. He was awarded something along the lines of Woodworker Of The Year in high school by all his teachers, who recognized his passion and talent early on. I laugh at how he and I, years and states apart, spent our teenage years exploring the crafts that would one day direct our careers and provide for our family. We are forever thankful for the industrial and creative arts programs in our schools, which are quickly disappearing, though that’s a conversation for another day.
Anyhow, Brad has always wanted to work with his hands. His college degree is in teaching – the Industrial Arts, of course. The funny thing is, he spent our first year of marriage teaching high school kids the same courses he grew up loving, but each day came home creatively unsatisfied and frustrated that he was teaching the very thing he wished he was doing all day. He loved the kids and was grateful for a steady job that supported his family, but the job wasn’t for him. He loved the subject matter; he didn’t love teaching it. Instead I watched him satisfy his creative itch by throwing pottery each evening on the wheel, making mugs and vases and crafting a whole line of beautiful ceramic goods for friends and family and, eventually, customers in our very first Etsy shop.
This lit a fire under us. I was in love with watching him create. And perhaps even more, I became enthralled with the idea of making his creations available to the public – and convincing people to pay him to do what he loved. This was our first venture in being paid artists. As the orders started rolling in, I became obsessed with the notion of surviving on creativity alone. Is this really possible? Can we seriously live this little bohemiain lifestyle in a 1-bedroom apartment, kiln burning through our rental bathroom’s linoleum floor, and make money? (Money we ended up paying to replace the floor we burned, ironically.)
The summer after his first year of teaching, he quit his job. I was 20 years old and had started The Oyster’s Pearl, and between pottery sales and freelance design work, we were well on our way to doing what we loved – all day, every day, baby. At this time we moved to West Virginia to pioneer Richwood Creations, a non-profit woodworking business that employed both of our passions (woodworking and design) to fund a ministry in the mountains that was near and dear to our hearts. Here we were, woodworking and designing all day – living the dream, right?
This is where I say yes! And also, of course, no. As soon as we turned our passions into businesses, the reality of business hit us square in the face. Suddenly the days I pictured in high school, of sitting at an easel all day with The Stones blaring and money rolling in for paintings, were instead spent doing things like taxes. Emails. Accounting. Researching SEO for our website. Struggling through learning camera setting for our product photos. Navigating lost packages and damaged shipments. Ordering office supplies. Filing copyright infringement reports. The true cost of doing business was our time and energy spent doing things that were certainly not “what we loved.”
Brad was busy growing Richwood Creations at a rapid rate, and soon was spending his days as a business manager, not a craftsman. The demands of a growing company didn’t allow him to lose track of time creating in the wood shop. He was knee deep in emails and employee training and yearning for more hours in the day to work with his hands. At the same time, I would wake up each day eager to design new products, but instead worked morning ’til night answering emails and updating the website, watching money come in – but not for reasons I really loved.
As it turns out, art is not business and I’ve spent the last five years making peace with that. I know too many great creatives without the desire and drive for business, but who love their craft at the expense of a typical day job. So they create and create and create, but never market or monetize, and are unfortunate poster kids for the Starving Artist cliché. I can’t blame them for doing what they love – but that advice can be taken too far, and at some point we all have to buck up and decide how we’re going to survive. Can you make it doing what you love, all day every day? I’d be utterly impressed if so. I think the key to survival and success lies in discovering the delicate balance between doing what you love, and doing whatever it takes to earn that privilege.
Currently I don’t spend much time creating. When people ask what I do, I struggle to answer – do I say graphic designer? Technically, sure. But I also say business owner, lest anyone think I actually get to sit at my desk and design all day. Our tasks are varied – meeting with an accountant, coffee with a client, keeping up on spreadsheets, invoicing, marketing, social media, website maintenance, corresponding with wholesalers, managing inventory, screen printing, packaging, trips to the post office – and it is all wonderful because these are the parts necessary for our passion. I may spend 20% of my work week actually creating, and 80% of it making that creativity profitable. And you know what? That’s ok. Author Penelope Trunk asserts that “Career decisions are not decisions about ‘what do I love most?’ Career decisions are about what kind of life do I want to set up for myself.” And for Brad and me, this life is sweet and hectic and creative and worthwhile and we are grateful for even that small sliver of time we get to spend doing what we love, even if it means doing lots of things we don’t necessarily love. Passion is a privilege.
Even after a full day of working my “dream job” I find myself with a creative itch. The best thing I’ve been able to do for myself is throw it back to the old days and stay up late, pencil sketching and exploring watercolors. I’ve rediscovered the high school version of myself that pops earbuds in and tunes the world out and gets lost in the joy of creating. I pulled up a recent photo of Amos at the park – one of his first times standing unassisted at just shy of a year old – and preserved the memory with a small pencil portrait. It’s no masterpiece, and I’m certain no one would pay me for pencil sketches of a chubby toddler. But free from the pressures of providing with my craft, I got to enjoy this hobby – alone, late at night, introverting after everyone was fast asleep. Hunched over our wooden dining room table that Brad handmade, of course – in his own moments of alone time and creativity – thankful for our passions and our business and the peace in knowing that they don’t always have to go hand in hand.
As for your career path? Do what you love – sure! Or do something else, don’t overthink it, and just be intentional about carving out a little time for what you truly love. Because as far as I can tell, real peace resides in finding your own delicate balance of love, hard work, passion, and the privilege of pursuing it – to whatever degree you’re able to in this season of life.
I’m so curious – do you do what you love? Try and love what you do anyway? Are you living the dream, or dreaming of something else? Let us know in the comments!