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How To Turn Your Creative Passion Into Your Profession

“Love what you do.”

It’s a common refrain, and one that is at once inspiring and fraught. On the one hand, work is what we spend the majority of our waking hours (as well as some hours that we should be asleep) doing, so we ought to enjoy it. If you live out your days toiling at something you hate, with people who constantly tell you “no,” boxed in literally and figuratively, it’s safe to say you’re not thriving. And those days will be very long, and they will string together into very long weeks punctuated by weekends of respite that are never, ever long enough. This, arguably, is no kind of life.

But a recent Gallup poll found the majority of Americans (70%) are “disengaged” from their jobs. Considering this outlook on work — that it’s a slog, something you do because you have to, a necessary evil to be complained about over rounds of happy hour drinks — do we really want to put our precious passions at risk? When we reframe our passion into a job, will we come to resent something we once loved?

I think of the artists I know and the unique paths that led each of them to where they are today. One friend, an incredibly accomplished art director and graphic designer, has had an impressive career but confesses she sometimes wonders what her life would have been like if she’d focused her art major on pottery instead. Another art school grad is lucky enough to make art every single day, designing patterns for a major clothing chain. Still another makes jewelry while her husband builds furniture, but they had to relocate from impossibly expensive New York City to Rhode Island in order to do it. My boyfriend is, in fact, another prime example: a born musician, there was never any question what he would be. He spent years touring the world, writing music and making albums, living through the often traumatic ups and downs of the entertainer’s life (and I with him). Now, he composes music for commercials. Call it selling out if you want; I call it a stable, comparatively comfortable existence that still lets him create every day, while reserving his off time for more personal, purely creative artistic pursuits.

And then there’s me. I’ve always loved to write. Language comes naturally to me. When words and punctuation click into place together, I get a thrill. And when something is wrong, I can feel it in a most visceral sense. But a writerly life isn’t typically a prosperous one. In this way, it’s like so many other creative fields in that it offers immense financial reward for a precious few, and a spartan existence for most. In the last eight years or so — a tumultuous time in media, to be sure — I’ve drifted from position to position, looking for a professional home in which my particular skill has value. And one thing it has taught me is the importance of maintaining an open mind. There’s something to be said — a lot, in fact — for making a living with your craft. How exactly you go about it is semantics. Just because it all doesn’t look exactly how you thought it would doesn’t mean it’s any less pure, or any less commendable.

That’s not to say you should just give up. Surely, you can fight— and you will have to fight — to make your creative passion your job. Write the next great American novel. Grace a Broadway stage night after night. Pen a platinum-selling single, then perform it for adoring millions. The odds are against you, but you’ll use that knowledge as fuel.

It’s noble to follow your heart and live your truth. And just think where we’d be if the Mozarts and Hemingways and Picassos of the world hadn’t stuck to their guns. But here’s the thing: that much-maligned, passionless workaday slog is a life born of necessity for so many people. And you can’t talk about the love-your-work thing while turning a blind eye to the inherent privilege in the whole idea. Maybe what you love doesn’t pay the bills. Then what?

Herein lies your first of three choices. You can relegate your creative passions to the realm of the extracurricular. Make time for it, whatever it is (writing poetry? Painting? Playing piano?), whenever you can. It will feed your spirit and, you may find, even propel you to success in unrelated areas of your life. Nourish your soul in your off time.

Or, you can take the more nuanced path. You can find a way to incorporate your art, the thing at the very heart of you that moves your soul, into your profession, like so many working artists I know (and, it should be said, admire). Maybe it won’t look exactly the way you thought it would, or the way the world expects it to. But you’ll be doing it, every day. In a sense, you will have hacked the system. You’ll have won.

There is, actually, a fourth choice, and in it, there’s a lesson from which everyone can benefit — even those lucky enough to adore what they do. It is possible to mine new, fresh passion in your existing life, doing whatever it is you do. If you don’t feel that fire in your current job, build it. Learn to love what you do, even if it’s just one small detail of your every day. Make passion where you thought there was none.

Now, tell us: What do you do? Do you love it? ...But is it your passion? Does it matter? Are passions and work best kept separate? 

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