I’m not sure the first time I heard that expression, but I know where it led me. I was in Rishikesh, India, sitting on the floor of the ashram I was studying at listening to the American yoga instructor, (a recovering drug addict) talk about her experience of going from homeless to globe-trotting entrepreneur. After her recovery, she went back to school, earned an MBA and opened her yoga businesses both in the US and India, straddling life in both countries with her Indian husband. She wasn’t living my dream, but she was certainly living a life of her own design which I admired.
At the time I had just left my job (and my work visa) in the US. I was getting over the loss of my mother to cancer and I was struggling to figure out my own priorities. That loss made me realize that time was short, life was precious and my corporate job was sucking my soul. So I went to India because I had a passion for yoga and I had naively believed that following a passion was the best way to make a living.
However, my plan of getting certified and becoming the next yoga mogul had a wrinkle in it. I discovered that while I enjoyed practicing yoga, I hated teaching it. One can only say “inhale upward dog, exhale downward dog” so many times. It lacked the intellectual engagement that I knew I needed to make it a sustainable choice. So by the end of my Indian sojourn, I was more panicked than ever before because I had no idea how I’d make money from my half-hearted passion.
Fast-forward 10 years. I’m back at the same company I claimed was sucking my soul in 2007. I have tried (and failed) to make my passions pay off more times than I’m ready to admit (okay, 5 times. I’ve tried and failed 5 times). While I do enjoy my professional work, it’s not a “passion”. To be honest, my passions change and evolve over time, so making money from them would be hard to keep up with.
Instead, I’ve come to appreciate my corporate job for different reasons. I am paid well for what I do, and I truly enjoy the people I work with. They’re kind, smart and everyone holds their own. I’ve spent so much time chasing the idea of monetizing a passion that I overlooked the possibility of finding enjoyment and contentment in a corporate job. While I’m not exactly “living the dream”, I do have great health care, a steady paycheck, several savings vehicles at my disposal and the opportunity to continue to learn and try new things within the boundaries of my organization (I think the kids are calling it intrapreneurship these days).
While I don’t regret any of my entrepreneurial adventures, I do regret the lost income that I could have been making had I tried these ideas as side hustles rather than a reason to escape the doldrums of full-time corporate work. In retrospect, had I taken more time to examine the reasons I’ve disliked corporate jobs in the past, and tried to fix or adjust to these challenges, I would be far better off financially today.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that some people don’t become successful from following their passions, but their stories are the exception, not the rule. We don’t hear about the entrepreneurs who bet it all and fail (time and time again) because people rarely get famous from their failures.
I read a great article about Warren Buffet today. Now there’s a guy who followed his passion and became one of the richest people in the world! But here’s the thing – at age 27 with a net worth of $127,000 he was (modestly) financially independent and considered retiring. He chose not to retire because people were asking him to manage their money for them and he found the work interesting. He was able to call his own shots because he didn’t need the money.
While I’m not poo-pooing the entrepreneurial dream, I am questioning how romanticized it has become. It’s a risky venture, and best left to evenings and weekends until it proves to be a viable and sustainable enterprise. This is particularly true for the idealists among us who seek to “monetize passions”. As Elizabeth Gilbert suggests, let your creative pursuits exist purely because they are yours. Never expect them to financially provide for you, but rather always promise to provide enough for yourself so that you can support your passions.
My best advice to anyone considering a passion-driven career risk, especially if it involves going out on your own, is to take it slow. Test your concept to see if it’s viable. Is anyone asking you for your skill or solution? It’s also a good practice to figure out if you’re well suited for entrepreneurship before leaving your job. Experiment in your free time and see how good you are at the hustle of finding new business and selling yourself. Some people are naturally great at this. Some people need a little time to build the skill but can get by with practice. Some people find it to be an unnatural and painful practice that overpowers the benefits of that kind of “lifestyle”. Know where you fit on that spectrum before you commit to too much.
Are you an advocate of jumping in head first, or are you in the “test and iterate” camp like me? I think it’s largely personality driven. Some folks can only succeed if they “burn the boats” so there’s no turning back, while others need lots of exit opportunities along the way. You can guess where I sit now, but initially, I burned boats.