There are countless books, bloggers and thought leaders that will tell you that the key ingredient to a happy, meaningful life is to find courage and start following your passion.
(As if courage and passion are all’s that required, and everything else is a minor detail that will eventually work itself out.)
I’ve previously argued that passion is a ridiculous thing to follow and can easily end up doing far more harm than good—mentally and financially. Its call is alluring, sure, and it seems like others have simply packed up their 9-to-5 lives, jumped head first into their passions, and ended up thriving.
What I’ve noticed though, is that there are two key ingredients that most of these “successful” bloggers don’t talk about it when they’re giving keynote speeches about how smart they were to make their leap into a more passion-filled work life. The ones that have made it by “doing what they love” had two things going for them first, both of which I believe are more important than the courage and passion they so lovingly go on and on about.
They were skilled at what they did before they took a leap. So skilled that they were doing well first, well enough that if their leap to something new faltered, they’d still be ok. Not to mention, what they leaped to was completely built off of the skills they were currently using that were in demand.
They were able to test their leap, with a smaller jump before they climbed to the top of the highest platform. So they didn’t just willy-nilly jump, they did a small jump first to make sure they could land it (i.e. there was enough demand for their offering), and not drown once they hit the water.
Courage and passion just sound better than skills and viability tests. I wouldn’t even want to watch a TED talk on the latter. But still, lifestyle designers that don’t end up living in their parent’s basement and eating the cheap ramen (no foolin, good ramen is DELICIOUS) were skilled before they started and figured out if their potential passionate life would be financially viable.
Even looking at my own life (and note: I’m definitely not a successful thought leader or lifestyle blogger), the changes in the type of work I’ve done over the last 20 years have only been successful when those two key ingredients were present.
Following your passion: my own story (x2)
I started my own business doing web design, only after I became an in-demand designer at an agency. I built up the skills as an employee until the clients of that agency wanted to leave with me when I quit. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have even started working for myself (I only did because the clients called after I quit, wanting to bring their business to wherever I moved to). In fact, I wasn’t passionate about web design, or even passionate about starting my own business. I only found the courage to do it because I had a small list of companies who wanted to pay me from day one. I just didn’t quit my job and jump right in, willy nilly.
When I started selling courses, the same elements were present. I used the skills I had built for years as a designer to make courses on related subjects. And before I moved entirely into products, I spent a few years transitioning, waiting until I was sure products would make me enough money before completely diving in.
On the other hand, when I tried to pivot without related, built up skills into business consulting, a short while after I started working for myself, I had almost no bites from clients. I was young (and stupid) and thought that since I had helped design a handful of websites, I must understand how all businesses everywhere work. Consulting seemed far more fun than just designing websites, so I found the courage to start promoting that as a service. Except I was only just starting my journey as a designer and I hadn’t come close to building up the necessary skills to consult other businesses. My business skills weren’t in demand at all and I had never even tested them to see if anyone would pay for them before spending a ton of time updating my website to promote them.
The same thing happened when I tried to pivot into something I was passionate about without testing to see if there was demand. Years ago I started not one but two software companies. Yes, I was the designer, which was a skill I had built up and created demand for, but I started both companies without seeing if they were financially viable. I worked for months and months with partners to create each of the products that we hadn’t even come close to demonstrating anyone would be willing to pay for. Which led to both of them ultimately and spectacularly failing.
I didn’t start out with a passion to be a freelance designer or course maker. I didn’t even have the courage to jump head first into those jobs either. They both happened slowly after I honed my related skills to the point where they were in demand. The passion for those jobs followed, but only once I spent a lot of time doing them and getting better at them. And then, I only moved fully into them once I could prove (mostly to myself) that they would pay. In contrast, when I tried to be a consultant in my early twenties or even start two software companies, I failed completely because I hadn’t yet honed the skills required for those endeavours, they were definitely not in demand and I couldn’t demonstrate that even a single person would pay for them.
Following your passion (it’s great for hobbies)
So courage and passion can be great if you want to skydive or take up a hobby like playing Ukulele. But when it’s your livelihood, they should take a back seat to using skills that you can build up and validate with revenue. This might seem like a downer of a message too, but it’s not. Thankfully, you don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what you’re passionate about or hoping that one day you find the courage inside yourself to leap into them full-time. Passion and courage are almost impossible to control and can easily leave you feeling bad about yourself. It’s far easier to simply work at getting really good at something in demand and seeing how those skills can apply to something else. And then testing your idea in a small way to see if it will pay.