I'm a bit of an expert on this subject because all my work experience (except high school summer jobs) was based on my hobbies. I never trained to become a creative professional, it just happened that I was offered opportunities to make a living with my hobbies because people saw what I was doing for fun and offered me money to do it! Isn't it amazing when that happens?
Well, I've learned that it isn't just sunshine and roses, and it doesn't work for all people and all kinds of hobbies.
If you discover your hobby is a true calling, then you'll probably want to be able to spend as much time doing it, so turning it into a career is a logical next step. But you have to carefully consider what you're signing up for before you jump in.
Before I get to the tips, I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. It's a bit long, but it has a point, I promise.
Meet my friend, the backgammon player
He hasn't given me permission to share this story on my blog, so he'll stay unnamed. My friend has been actively playing backgammon for 5 or 6 years. In the last few years he was thinking about the possibility of going professional.
For those of you unaware about this sport, you actually can be a professional backgammon player because there are many tournaments across the world with fine monetary prizes (sort of like poker, but with a wooden board and dice). You just have to practice a lot.
In March this year I started a local Failure Club pod (if you don't know what it is, check out the official Failure Club FAQ). In short, Failure Club is a support group of people, each of whom has a very ambitious goal to meet within one year.
My friend's goal was to get really good at backgammon by tracking his "error rate". It's a number that tells you how many errors you make during your game. It's not important for this story, but let's say that in order to improve your error rate by only a little, you have to practice like a maniac.
To say he was enthusiastic about his goal would be a vast understatement.
The man meant business. He had plans of action and spreadsheets and graphs. At one point he even decided to quit his job, and while all of us cheered him on his big important decision, his boss talked some sense into him so he stayed at work.
And boy, did he practice. He woke up earlier before work and played against the computer. Then he got home from work and played some more. Then before sleep, he'd play again, sometimes with players from all over the world. On Thursdays he'd play with his friends in a local cafe.
Witnessing his enthusiasm, I almost felt guilty I didn't feel that way about my goal, and I didn't share the same level of commitment.
This went on for 3 months, until he slammed against burnout.
He just didn't feel like playing anymore—it felt like a chore. We agreed that he needed a break, so he didn't practice for 2 weeks between the club meetings. Then another 2 weeks went by without practice. And weeks soon added up to almost 2 months.
After his first big tournament since starting on this goal, he came to a meeting with an announcement. He was giving up on his goal because he didn't want it anymore. There was nothing we could do or say to convince him to continue. It simply stopped being a goal he felt passionate about.
He explained how glad he was that he gave it a shot. If he hadn't, he'd still be daydreaming about becoming a professional backgammon player one day. Now that he gave his best and saw what toll it had on his life—spending the majority of his day in front of computer and staying at home while everyone else is having fun outside of home—he decided he'd rather keep it "just a hobby".
Turning his hobby into a profession took all the joy out of the game. He wanted his joy back.
The moral of this story is that some hobbies should remain just that. I know this is against the gospel of Follow Your Joy And Make Money Doing It everyone is preaching these days, and that you probably don't want to hear this, but I believe in telling the whole story, not just the shiny parts. I wrote a lot more about the more challenging parts in my article 12 uncomfortable truths about doing creative work for a living, so I recommend that you check that out as well.
If you're considering pursuing a full time career in something you enjoy doing in your spare time, you may want to know what it takes ahead of time so you can make an informed decision.
It's very rewarding, but it's also riddled with traps
If you're not careful, you might end up like my friend did. Of course, I don't mean it's necessarily a bad thing—he was happy he gave it a chance and figured out that he didn't actually want it. This is a very valuable thing to know. Luckily my friend did not quit his day job so he didn't gamble too much, just a few months of his free time.
Try a couple of months of doing your hobby professionally on the side. See what it feels like. Get through the bumpy parts while you still have the cushion of your regular paycheck. This may prove to be difficult because you probably won't have any free time for a while, but at least you're not gambling too much.
You'll have to find another hobby
Just when my friend was going all pro with backgammon, he started training running. Suddenly, running was bringing so much more joy to him than backgammon. The main reason why this happened is that running was a novelty. He trained running 2 times a week, and backgammon was something he did every day. Something that is scarce is often far more appealing than things we do for a living, even if we really love it. (I could think of a relationship analogy, but let's not go there).
There's only so many hours in a day you can spend on a certain type of work, day after day, so that it still brings you passion and joy. Beyond that, you have to mix it up a bit and spend some time on radically different things. It can be physical exercise, or it can be a different type of creative work in a completely different medium. This is beneficial for many reasons, and one of them is that your main creative work will keep its freshness as you infuse it with the discoveries you made about your other interests.
It would be best if you did this hobby in a different environment, because it just isn't healthy to sit in the same position the whole day, and it's also helpful to make the mental shift that comes with changing your surroundings.
Beware the burnout
They say "it's a marathon, not a sprint". You may be tempted to work 12–14 hours a day because you love your work so much, but it could backfire very soon. It's not sustainable to do anything 12 hours a day, every day. I'd say even 8 hours is a bit too much, because you can't keep your top performance for the entire 8 hour period, and working in shorter bursts can often give you better results.
If you end up making this mistake, you may find yourself not feeling any joy about your work for a while. Don't worry—this is normal, and it happened to me more times than I can count. It's best to take a vacation during this period and do things completely unrelated to work for a while. This may prove to be very difficult if you have a pile of projects to finish, but even if you absolutely must work, make self-care a priority and spend as much time as you can outside of your office. I share more thoughts and tips in the post on dealing with creative burnout.
You'll have to put a price tag on your work
It's extremely difficult to put a price on something you'd be doing even if no one paid you. It will be a challenge to charge a fair price for your products or services because we're raised to consider creative pursuits as leisure, and thus something nobody would pay for.
It's also very common for creatives to wrap our price up with our self-worth, and most of the time this means we undercharge because we tend to have huge self-worth issues.
Another important thing is that you have to get away from the idea of hourly rate as soon as possible. You're not only charging for labor and materials, you're also charging for your creativity, and that doesn't have a fixed value.
Some days you'll be on fire, everything will flow as if without effort, and you'll get a lot of work done that will be of high quality. On other days you'll feel sluggish and not very productive. You can't have the same "hourly rate" for both. Time is a factor because you can never buy it back and you have to be mindful of how you spend it, but with creative work a lot of the value you provide falls into the untouchable categories that are difficult to calculate in a spreadsheet.
How do you charge the price? It depends on your field. If you're providing services, then your price should be based on value you provide for your customers. If you're making luxury goods like jewelry or paintings, it's hard to use the "value" argument, but the fact you're making something unique and artistic is enough to justify a bigger price than mass-produced stuff. For a more detailed explanation read my post How to price your art.
You'll probably undercharge in the beginning. When you realize you're doing it, don't dwell on it for too long or soak in the guilt and resentment toward your clients, just adjust the prices and move on. It's normal.
You'll be challenged a lot when you start asking for what is fair. People will want freebies. People will want a discount. You'll have to learn to say no with confidence. Yes, it's hard. No, there's no magic wand that will make it disappear. You can do it!
Don't take things so personally
This is very difficult to avoid because we tend to take our passions seriously. When our clients or peers disagree with, criticize or outright reject our work it can make us feel unworthy. We might feel the need to defend our work because succumbing to outside influence seems like we accept we don't know what we're doing. It's very common.
Becoming a professional requires separating our work from our self-worth. It doesn't mean you don't care about your work, but it means you don't treat disagreement as an attack on your abilities and you as a person. You need to be able to handle feedback with grace, and to instruct your clients on how to provide it.
Be wary of getting too detached though, because if you lose all your passion for your work, you'll lose the very reason you got into this in the first place. We definitely don't want that to happen!
For more thoughts on how to maintain the passion for your creative career for years to come, read my post How to bring back the passion – 5 key conditions for fulfilling creative work.
Make a clear distinction between the work you do for others & the work you do for yourself
Personal creative work is where you can be free to express yourself fully. Client work is full of compromise. Understand this difference, and do not expect your full-time or freelance job to fulfill 100% of your creative needs.
I've written and talked more about this topic here:
- How to be an artist in a world of commerce
- Video: How to balance personal & commercial creative work
Get a support group
If you're anything like most creatives I know, you might the only person in your family that is seriously considering working in a creative field. Your parents might be worried about your survival. Your acquaintances who are stuck in office jobs may be jealous of you. In any case, there are a lot of people who will tell you about all the difficulties that await you. It will make your already challenging path even harder.
You need some friends who won't question your decision and who will support you when things get tough. It would be great if they're real life friends you can have coffee with, but if you don't have any of those they can also be found online.
It would be great if they're also creatives that run their own business, because they'll understand your challenges and be able to offer you some practical advice. But if that's not an option, at least educate your friends about the ways your career differs from theirs so they can get a better grasp of where you are.
One thing I've learned from our local Failure Club pod is to not underestimate the power of the group to motivate you. Having regular meetings with your friends (or a mastermind group) can be very beneficial, even when you feel like you don't need it.
Still want to make that hobby into a career?
If you answered "Yes, yes, yes!!" even after reading about these potential pitfalls, I want to congratulate you and wish you the very best on your way!
If you're not so sure, please don't feel bad about it. It's OK to have non-profitable hobbies! If you need more encouragement, I recommend that you watch episode 2 of Nela's Art Chat: Art “just” a hobby? + Creepy portrait drawing process video. I decided to keep my art as a hobby, and it was the best decision I ever made.