freelancing, thinky thoughts

thinky thoughts: turning a hobby into a career

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash


I used to love to write stories. I could spend hours plotting them out, talking about them with people, giggling over details, and then putting the actual words down on paper. I would write no matter what – when I worked night shift at a hotel, where I had long stretches of nothing but sitting at the front desk, I wrote. When I worked in a coffee shop, I’d scribble things down on receipts and scraps of paper during breaks. When I worked as a telemarketer, I’d keep a notepad beside me to jot things down. When I was in school, I’d doodle and scribble in the margins of my notes. I would carry around a notebook with me and jot things down all the time. I wrote fanfics, I wrote original fiction, I signed up for big bangs (hell, I ran one for a few years). I had a lot of fun with it.

Burning out

And then, about five years ago, two things happened. I started an MA program and I started a novel translation. The MA – the thesis writing – was far more stressful than the translation and I think it was the main reason for something in my brain going “snap”, but I can’t honestly say that the latter didn’t contribute. I don’t think it has anything to do with the content of the novel, I suspect it was just that it was the first project of that size that I did. Although there is a part of me that is adamantly against being a literary translator, because I don’t really want to work on processing someone else’s creative work, I want to make my own. Anyway, since those two things happened five years ago, I haven’t really been able to write for fun – I sit down at the computer, I stare at the empty page, and I just… can’t.

It’s not a lack of ideas, and I wouldn’t really call it writer’s block. But I just find it immensely difficult to put words to a page – I think the fact that I’m a translator, which means I work with text pretty much every day, is a culprit here, too. And the thing is, I like being a translator (well, most of the time). But the bit where I write for fun? It’s become tarnished and there’s a part of my brain that just recoils at the thought.

It’s getting better

It’s getting better, a little bit. I’ve been taking it easy and working with some old texts, going back and revisiting them, trying to dip my toes in the water. I’m taking it slow, so I don’t spook myself, so I don’t end up giving up on it and burning my bridges. I miss the writing. I miss the joy of it. I think what I miss the most though is not feeling like I’m a failure when I sit down to write and don’t get more than a few words down.

The internet is full of articles and how-to guides on how to become a professional <thing doer>. Some of them are very helpful, outlining the steps you need to take, the things you need to do, and the skills you need to acquire before you go pro. Some of them are collections of links to other guides, some of them are collections of (it would seem) obvious things that are perhaps not so obvious (or else there would be no need to repeat them over and over in attractively edited listicles).

(The internet is also full of articles about why turning your hobby into a career is a bad move, but what the heck, let’s add another one.)

Shakespeare gotta get paid, son

But here is the thing. I understand wanting to make money (who doesn’t?). I understand wanting to do something you’re good at, something you’re passionate about, and make money at the same time. But why is there so much pressure on people to take their passion, their hobby, and turn it into a moneymaker? Why is it that when someone writes stories for fun, people constantly ask them, “so when are you going to publish it?” or if they write fanfiction (which by definition is for fun and not for profit), they hear “you should just create your own characters and then sell the book”? Why is it that when a knitter makes some something for the sheer fun of seeing something go from a lump of yarn to a beautiful, intricate shawl, they get “you should totally sell these” as a reaction?

I’m not saying monetizing a passion is bad. By all means, if you can make money by doing something you enjoy, go for it! In a perfect world, we would all get to do that. But insisting that there’s no point in doing something, even if you’re passionate about it, if you’re not making money off it is silly. Just as silly as the “logical” progression of hobby > career as the only acceptable one. Most people write about how awesome it is to turn your hobby into a career, because hey, you get to do what you love and make money off it! That’s a very rosy outlook, and it certainly can be tempting. But few people talk about how hard it can be to break through, how frustrating it can be to constantly feel like you’re butting your head against a wall and not getting anywhere. But when you have to do the thing that you normally love to do, and you can’t take a few days off because your hand hurts or because you’re sick, and you have to meet the deadline or risk losing a client or getting fired, well, that’s gonna tarnish that rosy glow pretty damn quick.

Keep your head up, keep the passion alive

And while we’re at it, let’s stop looking down on people who say they don’t want to go pro. For some people, the word “professional” has only one meaning: someone who has monetized what they do and made it into a career. And they look at the work done by someone who is really good at something and tell them, “you should turn professional!” or “this is so good, it’s like a pro did it!” Well, just because someone doesn’t do the thing professionally (i.e. for money) doesn’t mean they’re not a pro at doing the thing. If you want to make your hobby into a career, there are things you have to consider that aren’t part of the hobby – running a business, dealing with clients, etc. But let’s remember that “professional” doesn’t necessarily mean “better than a hobbyist.” Making money may give you more and better opportunities to keep developing your skills and get better at doing the thing. But being a professional thing-doer means it’s your job – and not everyone is good at their job. Just like being a native speaker of a language doesn’t automatically make you good at writing or translating, having a business doesn’t automatically make you better than someone who does the same thing as a hobby. (One would hope that the “being really good” part would come before the “making money from it,” just as a logical progression.)

Not to mention the fact that when you “go pro,” you run the very real risk of actually losing the passion you have. When you make photos or knit or write for pleasure, it’s a way to unwind, to do something that makes you happy for the sake of being happy. The moment you have to do it, the moment it becomes a do or die situation, the seeds of resentment start germinating. It might take a while, but it will be there. And you might think that you can still do it as a hobby, for yourself, in addition to doing it professionally, but sooner or later, you’re going to start getting less and less joy from it. You’re going to burn out and risk being unable to do it for fun or for money.

Rosy outlook, harsh reality

I’m not saying you can’t be passionate about your career – obviously. But every job, no matter how happy it makes you, no matter how rosy the outlook, will eventually bring stress and irritation and negative vibes. And if you turned your hobby – the thing that brought you joy, the thing that you used to unwind and relax, away from everything else – into a career, and you’re determined to also keep it as your way of relaxing, I’m pretty sure you’re going to run into trouble sooner or later. The stigma of “I have to do this thing and it’s not making me happy” is going to affect your ability to use that thing to unwind. I guess the thing to do would be to find another hobby to replace the one that you turned into a career, but I don’t know whether that would work for everyone. I can’t imagine being completely happy with seeing your passion become a chore and then having to find something else you’re equally passionate about to make up for that.

I’d like to be able to say that if you’re very careful and if you try very hard, you totally can have your cake and eat it, too. And obviously, let’s say your career is something that’s also very common as a hobby, say, photography, your work and your hobby are going to overlap – people take pictures all the time, so chances are you will, too. And chances are, they’ll be pretty damn good photos, because you’re going to get better and better at it. But given that none of us live in a bubble, free of the influence of other people, events and things beyond our control, it’s a pretty big risk to put all your eggs in one basket. It’s better to leave yourself something that’s just about you, that nobody’s telling you (hopefully) to monetize, something that can be a refuge for you. Because if you don’t do it, who will?

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