March 24, 2014

How the Do What You Love Mantra Is Hurting Creative Professionals

Filed under: Uncategorized — Meredith @ 10:42 am


My partner Matt and I have been in the clothing and accessories business for several years, consistently selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product that we genuinely like. By all accounts this sounds like success, but honestly we work a ton of hours and the income-to-effort ratio is really not to our satisfaction. Things have shifted very recently though and I’m thrilled, though you might be surprised at how.

We’ve started selling clothing and accessories we honestly do not like and would not wear, and we’ve been selling a lot of it every single day since we started doing it. We opened a second online store and started offering trendy t-shirts and accessories with cliches about keeping calm and mustaches. This is a radical departure from our usual design work, which features clever humor paired with well-executed original illustration. We prefer the latter, meaning it’s what gives us joy and constitutes what we ourselves would wear. That said, I have no problem with our new online store. I’m not “doing what I love” — I’m doing what’s profitable. And no, this doesn’t make me a “sell out” — it makes me a successful entrepreneur.  I’m doing what’s extremely easy for me and what I know how to do really well as a professional. I’m providing a product people want to buy at an affordable price point, which is a win for me and my new-found customers. If you think less of me for doing this, that’s fine. I’m not looking for anyone’s approval; I’m looking to pay my bills.

There is a pervasive and toxic ethos in small business culture (especially in creative small business) that you should do what you love and love what you do, and that by sticking to your artistic principles your market will eventually “find” or “discover” you or your brand and catapult you to success while still retaining your creative credibility. But if you capitalize on a trend or simply do something you’re indifferent to for profit, it’s seen as less than desirable, or even worse, people will tell you you’ll fail for doing it. I’m here to tell you this is WRONG and any business coach who tells you otherwise is LYING. This touchy-feely, start-with-why, follow-your-dreams-and-money-will-follow fairytale sounds good, but it’s NOT practical and it leaves no room for discussion of important matters that determine profit, like discovering marketplace inefficiencies and exploiting them to your advantage. Running a profitable business is not about YOU. It’s about making money, and that means it’s about selling what other people want to buy, not what you want to buy.

The “do what you love” mantra is a recipe for disaster (and also classist). It’s what keeps starving artists starving. If doing what you love doesn’t earn you money and doing what you’re indifferent to is frowned upon, you’re stuck. Even worse, that type of failure is an indictment of you personally. You were selling YOU (in the form of your love, your passion, etc.) and it didn’t work, therefore you suck. Don’t get me wrong, doing what you love is great! But strict adherence to this kind of mindset should only be expected in the realm of hobby, not the reality of a for-profit business. If what you love and what makes you money coincide, that’s great, but it’s absolutely not necessary and it’s often not possible.

I have to say, moving to Los Angeles really crystallized my thoughts on the “do what you love” ethos. The Los Angeles economy is primarily based on creative work. This city is home to actors, writers, set designers, cinematographers, costumers, artists, comedians and other creative professionals from all walks of life. Since moving here I’ve met so many talented creative professionals that blow me away.

While many of these professionals do what they love, they also do what pays the bills, and the best part of being in Los Angeles is that this is considered the norm. No one here is going to look down on you from behind their Urban-Outfitters-approved-eye-glasses-as-a-fashion-accessory. The comedians you think are so smart, clever, funny, and edgy make extra cash doing punch-up for movies you think are stupid.  The illustrators you think are so mind-blowing that got featured in Juxtapoz or Hi-Fructose are making extra cash freelancing for Disney and Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network. This is talked about openly and with no shame in the creative community here, but it’s a reality that’s largely ignored by many aspiring creative professionals.

The major difference between a hobbyist and a professional is that hobbyists are doing something they enjoy and professionals are doing something that pays their bills. If doing what you love isn’t paying your bills, you’re not a failure; you just haven’t started doing what’s profitable. If you want to earn a living doing creative work, think about what people will pay you the most for, NOT what you most enjoy doing. Doing what’s profitable (even if you personally do not find it interesting) doesn’t make you a fraud — it makes you a smart business person.

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  1. I get what you’re throwing down here, but I have a different take on this. I think there’s a three pronged approach. It’s possible to do what you love and make a living, but it requires flexibility. I may love knitting doilies, but if that isn’t something at which I excel and there isn’t any market for it, then it’s not going to make money. I think you have half of this equation right, people can’t just do anything they love and make money, but they can 1. find something they love 2. at which they excel 3. which they can make money doing. Or they can opt to just do what makes money…or do what they love for fun…but I don’t believe it’s an either or proposition. Just my two cents as a creative who makes a living doing something she loves, but doesn’t love every aspect of doing it.

    Comment by Margot Potter — March 24, 2014 @ 11:18 am

  2. It’s not an either or for everyone. There are certainly people for whom doing what they love coincides with making money. My point is just that it’s not realistic to expect this to always be the case. I am making money doing something I like, but I can make even more money doing something I’m indifferent to. Doing creative work you aren’t interested in doesn’t preclude doing work you are interested in for fun or profit. That said, sometimes the stuff you’re less interested in can make you a lot of money and that matters when this is how you make a living. I think there needs to be more honest discussion in the creative community about this reality and less stigma about it.

    Comment by Meredith — March 24, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

  3. Meredith… Exactly what I was expressing to some dudes only this morning. I concur 100%. I have been called a sell-out many times because I have a part time job. I do several styles of art, lately people are seeing all of it together and the fans that have only ever seen my skulls think Im selling out because I do other stuff too and vice-versa, when in reality I have always been pretty diverse. I will take on commissions for pretty much anything that I think I can do. I regularly think about what I want to paint Vs what I think will sell and a big consideration is what events are coming up to match and time the release etc… For me, its just a matter of finding that balance. Thanks heaps for writing this article!

    Comment by Robbo from TsunamiDeathCult — March 24, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

  4. I do a little bit of what I love, a little bit of what a like and a little bit of what doesn’t curl my toes but pays the mortgage. You are right, magical thinking is not going to make magic happen. Success requires blood, sweat and tears. Not everyone is going to get the brass ring simply because they’re following their bliss. That said, we are all in charge of our own ship and we get to decide where we sail it. Is there a stigma about not doing what you love for a living? Really? I didn’t get the memo on that. I know some people think you’re selling out if you make money making, but who cares? What other people think about me is none of my business. To thine own self be true.

    Comment by Margot Potter — March 27, 2014 @ 10:18 am

  5. I’d like to know what your other site is…? 🙂

    Kudos on this post. It’s wonderful if you can make money doing what you love, but in the end, you do what you gotta do to keep the lights on.

    Appreciate your efforts!

    Comment by Jerome — April 9, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

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