How to do what you love for a living and still love it tomorrow
You deserve to love what you do for a living -- today and tomorrow. Here are 3 lessons I learned from burning out in my passion career and getting to the other side.
I started my career as a passion. I loved to write — needed to write — and there was profit to be made. It seemed like a natural fit.
By the end of the second year of my passion job, I was burned out, ready to quit, and couldn’t remember why I wanted to do this.
I fell out of love with my own dream.
I want better for you. I won’t promise that old adage about doing what you love for a living and never working a day in your life. It’d be irresponsible of me if I did.
Instead, I’m going to share what I learned from my journey of dreaming of a profitable passion career, burning out in that dream, and most importantly, getting it all back.
I’m going to teach you how to do what you love for a living and still love it tomorrow.
Let’s get started.
Lesson 1: Nurture your unprofitable creativity
There will come a point, either from bills or ambition, where you start to see your passion and creativity as a direct line to your bank balance. For me, that was from the start — I was spurred on by the bills side of the equation — and it became clear.
If I had time to write, I had time to scrounge for cash. I didn’t see blank documents as places of opportunity anymore. It wasn’t a canvas. It was an invoice in progress.
The guilt of doing something creative solely for me when I so badly needed to make ends meet was overwhelming.
So I stopped. Slowly, and without me noticing, I devoted my every waking creative crumb to my career.
It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. It set me back in my career, and the resulting mental health consequences weren’t pretty.
Let’s tackle that career-crushing effect first.
Creativity is at its highest point when we’ve had a chance to let our mind wander, according to Emma Seppala, author of The Happiness Track and Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
This means those 51% of business owners, self included at that point in time, who say they have trouble switching off their work brain when the day is done, are killing their own creativity.
You need space in your head to create inventive ideas and be at your creative best. Boredom, defined as a mundane, unstimulated mental state, doesn’t just spark creativity — it makes you better at it.
In a research study published in the Academy of Management, scientists found that those who engaged in a “boring” task versus those who were engaged in a creative task prior to a creative challenge outperformed both in quality and quantity.
In other words, the bored people did better than the artists coming up with creative solutions.
Boredom can’t happen if you’re budgeting every minute of productivity for your business. You need to find balance as an entrepreneur to experience boredom.
They say boredom is the finest expression of freedom, and that’s never truer than when you’re frantically trying to make a self-started business work.
But maybe you’re still not convinced of the dangers of neglecting your personal creativity. Beyond the fact that it limits your creativity overall, there’s also the equally practical problem of making you increasingly unhappy.
This brings us to that disaster-for-mental-health side of the equation when I stopped nurturing my personal writing habit.
Creativity is a species-specific trait, and we use it in three ways, according to Dr. Daisy Fancourt:
We use it to feel good about ourselves. Creativity builds up confidence and self-esteem (not the same things, surprisingly) so we can grow.
We use it to work things out in our heads. Creative activities — no matter what they are — free up space in our heads so we can spread a problem on the tablet and take it apart with elbow room. In other words, they give us a new angle for problem solving.
Finally, we use it to escape. For a little while, creativity is a distraction tool or avoidance strategy, letting our emotions temper.
How did Dr. Fancourt come up with these categories? She didn’t, precisely — at least not alone.
50,000 survey respondents in one of the largest studies investigating the link between creative activities and emotional coping helped her whittle down how we use creativity to sort ourselves.
So, that passion you’re profiting from (or hoping to profit from)? It’s not just necessary for your business. It’s necessary for your well-being, too. Nurture it. You deserve it, and you need it.
If you’re scratching your head for what all of that means for you, it depends on what you do.
Are you passionate about cooking and creating info products on that? Spend time away from the camera to experiment with ingredients. Be free and messy in a way you probably aren’t on camera.
You want to pursue the parts of your Passion/Profit Matrix that are low profit, high passion. So for picking an activity from the example below, you’d want to focus on creating something around eggs.
Is photography your escape and you create camera manuals or photo-editing courses? Take shots just for you. Don’t try to impress anyone with them. In fact, don’t even plan to show anyone your work. The only customer you need to connect to is yourself.
For writers, write something different from your job — fiction if you write non-fiction. For painting educators, try out a wild new style that you’ve always wanted to test but wouldn’t dream of teaching.
You get the idea. Separate your passion from your profit intentionally and make time for it. Yes, it’s going to be hard with a crazy schedule. It’s worth doing, and making the time for it has been instrumental in keeping me sane. It will help you too.
Lesson 2: Set a maximum limit on your work hours
Confession: Despite being obsessed with organization, I’m not great at a consistent schedule. I definitely don’t adhere to an inflexible calendar. But I do have a hard cut-off time for when I’ll stop work, and I stick to it as ruthlessly as I can.
I’m far, far from the first, and even further from the last, to limit my passion work. Famed inventor Benjamin Franklin, credited with creating lightning rods, swimming fins, bifocals, and much more, adhered to his life with a far stricter regimen than I’ve ever managed.
Check it out:
What Ben knew, and what I had to learn the hard way, is that scheduling your life and setting boundaries for yourself actually makes you more creative.
In fact, Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg, the co-authors behind a massive interdisciplinary review of creativity and its relationship with constraints, found that a lack of constraints is just as stifling as too many.
“…when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance — they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas.”
Choosing the path of least resistance doesn’t make them — including you or me — less hard-working. It’s hardwired into our brains to find the least challenging option as the more attractive one.
It’s not even something we’re fully conscious of. The perceived, unconscious effort of a decision biases the way we perceive the decision itself, finds Nobuhiro Hagura, Patrick Haggard, and Jörn Diedrichsen.
Nobuhiro, the lead author, explains:
“Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest. We found that not only does the cost to act influence people’s behaviour, but it even changes what we think we see.”
But what does this all mean practically? Wanting to set a schedule is all well and good, but I know few people who don’t have at least semi-regular interruptions.
Here’s my suggestion: set your criticals in stone, and only those.
Criticals meaning the things you need to do to be healthy, such as:
Eating. You need at least 1200 calories a day to stay healthy, and that means you need to plan when you’re going to get them at least roughly. As with sleep, consistency produces better results, especially if you eat within the same 12-hour window.
Exercise. The U.S. Government recommends 150 minutes of aerobics and two training sessions weekly. It might not sound like much, but between eating, sleeping, and exercising, you’ll need consistency to maintain your energy levels throughout the day.
The rest, you can and should give yourself leeway for if you need it. There is such a thing as being too flexible as your own boss, but what’s the point of working from home if we can’t get a little loose, right?
Instead of documenting every minute to the minute, what works for me is to set a maximum time when work life ends and personal life begins.
Examples of what that might look like include “Work always ends after I work eight hours” or “Work always ends when it’s 6PM”.
However you set that goal, be realistic about it.
Do you rarely stop work before 8? Then don’t aim for ending work at 5. Not at first. Habits take a long time to build. On average, it takes two months for a habit to form, according to research at University College London (UCL).
And that’s just averages. For some participants in the study, it took as much as 254 days to make a habit automatic. (You can read the full research study here if you want to dig in deeper.)
This research was more recently replicated by Anouk van der Weiden et al., backing up the UCL’s original results: in a longitudinal study with nearly 150 people, habit formation gained ground over the course of three months, with the strongest results relating to consistency.
So, don’t aim higher than you reasonably think you can accomplish. The important thing isn’t to have the perfect schedule around your life — it’s to have a consistent schedule that creates a boundary between what you do for a living and what you do to live.
Lesson 3: Play to your strengths and outsource what doesn’t fit in them
There’s this dogmatic idea that you cannot have weaknesses and succeed.
Do you struggle with public speaking? Better practice 10,000 hours then and make it your greatest superpower. Hate posting on social media? You can’t expect to succeed unless you’re the next big thing in social media marketing.
It sounds absurd when it’s put that way, but this idea of being able to do it all alone — and with flawless execution to boot — is pervasive.
So is the damage it does.
Researchers reported that the higher an entrepreneur rated their passion as obsessive, the more likely they were to say they experienced burnout.
There’s also the not-so-great fact that compared to the general population, entrepreneurs are much more likely to report lifelong mental health struggles.
Entrepreneurs experience depression as much as 15% more prevalently than the general population.
No one is a monolith. All of the time you’re spending trying to perfect the parts of the job you dread is time you could be doing what you’re really good at and getting faster and better results.
I like to pull out the Eisenhower Matrix for figuring out what I should outsource.
You should be handling everything in the top left. The rest, someone else can do for you.
What if something you’re weak at is in that top left corner? Then you need to learn it and put in the hours to get really, really good at it. The point isn’t that you can offload everything you struggle with on someone else; it’s that you don’t need to master everything, either.
Of course, this all begs the final question of what if you can’t afford to outsource any of it? I definitely couldn’t as a fresh writer.
The answer doesn’t change. Work on the skills you need to fulfill your urgent and critical goals, build on the skills you already have, and capitalize on the success of those efforts by hiring a virtual assistant to handle the rest when you’re able to.
You don’t need to be good at everything. Pare down what you actually need to succeed, work on those, and deal with the rest as you grow. Overcoming perfectionism is no small feat, but it is a desperately critical one to moving forward.
And maybe it’ll even help with that nagging impostor syndrome when you stop pretending to be good at the things you don’t even want to be good at.
It definitely helped me.
Love your work tomorrow as much as you do today
Are these three lessons going to prevent you from meeting the fate I did? I hope so, but I’m not in the business of making false guarantees.
What I can promise is that if you give each of these a fair, honest try, you’re going to be happier doing what you love because you’re going to have a healthier relationship with your craft.
Above all, don’t let your creativity become a pure profit machine. You need time and space to continue being creative for yourself and for free.
Set a schedule, but don’t make it impossible to follow, and focus on meeting the critical deadlines — food, sleep, and exercise. Otherwise, you’re your own boss and can make your own hours. Embrace that.
You don’t have to become great at everything. Figure out what you’re good at, what you actually need to be good at, and what you can let someone else handle when you have the budget for it. Then, lead with your strengths — they’ve gotten you this far.
You can profit off your passions and keep those passions alive and healthy. I’ll be cheering for you.
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