Pursuing Your Passion in 4 Hard Steps

At the beginning of 2016 I left a my job as a business analyst and software engineer to pursue the dream of being a full-time musician. It feels a little crazy at times and, often, when I tell people about having made this transition they exclaim “how brave”. I can’t help but agree with them. This shit is scary.

This was the third time I decided I wanted to give the full-time music thing a try. The first two times I got cold feet. In retrospect, I think I wasn’t quite ready, so I guess it’s good I got scared off. When the third time came around, I was much better prepared. I had saved up some money, and I was being hired fairly regularly. I was also extremely frustrated with my job which was, I think, that last push I needed to make it over the edge.

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Here I am one and a half years later, and I can tell you that I got a lot right, and a lot wrong. I’ve met a lot of people who want to quit their day job to follow their passion whether it’s opening an ice cream shop, writing a book, teaching dance, or something else. There’s no easy way to find success here and, despite hard work, you might not find the success you desire. There are, of course, steps we can take to increasing our likelihood of success. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that I hope might help you do just that.

Be specific

You wanna follow your passion? Why? What does that look like? There are a million ways to be a musician, for example. You can perform, you can teach, you can write music, you can score films. Then there are things that are musician-like: you can produce, you can manage a band, you can book bands, you can make and fix instruments, you can do recording. The list goes on. Whether you want to be an artist, a musician, an author, or something else, it behooves you to be as specific as possible about your dream. Then, once you think you figured it out, explain to yourself why that’s the dream for you. What drives you?

It was a fascinating discovery for me to uncover the hidden reasons why I really wanted to be a musician. Yes, I love performing, and I love writing music. However, after countless discussions, hours of journaling, and occasionally knocking my head on the nearest hard surface, I found that music’s importance to me lies in its ability to connect people to each other, and as a way for me to connect with people. Further, I found that I enjoy the pursuit of mastery. My favorite scenes in movies are the montages. I love the idea that focused work leads to improvement. I also enjoyed the appreciation and attention that I received as a musician. It feels a little embarrassing to admit that but it’s better to work with truth than lies. Honesty is key.

We are self-delusion experts. Some of us are better than others, but we all have the talent. If you really wanna get to your truth, it’s gonna take work. My suggestion is to tag some of your good friends and discuss it with them. Also, journal. If you’re not keeping a journal, start by journaling about what’s taken you so long. 15 minutes every other day will do wonders. Here are some questions to start with:

  • What does my ideal life look like? Do you have a house, a family, a dog? Do you travel?
  • What are my non-negotiables? Are you open to have an apartment instead? Are there only a select number of places you’ll live?
  • What parts of my current life am I not willing to give up? Your car? Your friends?
  • What does success look like? Being rich? Getting to be creative?
  • Why is this my passion?

Be realistic

When I first made the transition, I had it in my mind that I would spend at least 5 hours a day practicing piano, jazz, and transcribing. I was going to do this all while building up my online presence, performing more, touring, and maybe doing some teaching to make ends meet. I’m sure had I reflected on these goals a little more rigorously, I would’ve realized that they weren’t realizable, at least not simultaneously. In fact, my time management system has brought great clarity on what I can actually achieve in a week. Here’s a snapshot of last week:

11 hours writing and arranging music for an upcoming performance
7 hours on songwriting
5.5 hours practicing
5 hours performing
3 hours on promotion
2 hours booking tours and local gigs, working out details for upcoming performances
2 hours on finances, taxes, etc.
2 hours on strategical thinking and systems
2 hours prepping for classes I’m teaching
And then a bunch of other miscellany

The reality is that following your dream will often leave you spending a lot of time doing things that you might not be all that excited about. Make sure that you’re being realistic with your specific vision. If you’re really excited about becoming a better painter well, sure, you can spend a month or two just painting all day. Eventually though, you’re going to need to sell your paintings, and you won’t be able to spend all day doing that one thing you love.

Be smart

I love Disney movies as much as the next person but I also fault them for instilling in us many toxic beliefs. For starters, there’s that small tinge of sadness I feel every time I talk to a dog and they don’t actually respond to me. And I’m pretty miffed that I can’t have a pet tiger. Perhaps a more harmful Disney message is that, if you’re passionate about something, you should probably just drop everything else in your life and go do it. In fairness, it’s not just Disney that’s sending this message. There’s a host of articles, books, and “experts” that just want us to forget about money, responsibility, our friends and pets, and pursue what makes us happy.

When we talk about pursuing passion, we often talk about it as a binary thing. If you’re a full-time artist, you’re pursuing your passion. If you’re doing it on the side, then you’re not. There are many who hold down a full or part-time job, and also pursue their passion. There are some who took the plunge into full-time artist, entrepreneur or whatever, and got trapped in a situation where they’re not actually getting to do the things they love. That might sound familiar to some of you. I know I’ve fallen in that trap. So, rather than going into work tomorrow and serenading your bosses with “I am quitting this job today,” consider this approach:

  • If you don’t have a job that issues a regular paycheck, get one. You might want to favor jobs that respect work/life balance so you can continue creating, and investing into your passion.
  • Save as much money as you can. Cut away all superfluous expenses and live as minimally as possible. The less you consume (and more you save), the more freedom you’ll have to do whatever you want to do.
  • Set goals for how much time you’re going to spend pursuing your passion. Again, be specific, and prove to yourself that this is something you really want by meeting your weekly goals even while you’re holding down a regular job.
  • If you’ve saved enough to pay your living expenses for at least 3 years, you have some people paying for your creations, and you really want to give it a go, now might be a good time. If possible, start by cutting down your work hours to part-time rather than leaving altogether.

Enjoy it

When I first made the transition to full-time, I fixated on how I was going to make money. I came up with lots of ideas but, after some introspection, realized that most the ideas weren’t aligned with my reasons for taking the plunge to begin with: a desire to connect with people, to pursue mastery, and to garner appreciation. I finally decided that I would put money second; Instead of trying to maximize my income as a musician, I seek to maximize my enjoyment.

I choose to spend the majority of my time doing the things that I love, and I will live with the outcome. In a year or so, I might make some carefully thought out concessions, or I may discover that I can’t make my passion my vocation, and that’s okay. It would be worse, I think, to be making a lot of money and no longer enjoying my art.

People are as varied as the songs they listen to. There are many who love programming computers (I actually still really enjoy this work). I had a math teacher in high school who was a mortician on the side. That was his passion. I think it’s a common misconception that passions have to look artistic. Almost all professions have an element of creativity. So, while this post has talked a lot about being some kind of artist, it’d be a mistake to think that you have to be an artist to pursue your passion. It’s up to you to discover your own vision and find your reasons, your hidden drivers. Maybe you’re already living your dream. Awesome! If not, I hope you find these ideas helpful, and find success however you define it. Good luck!

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Whoa, you made it to the end. Here’s a gift: Watch that cute pup in the picture turn on and play the organ, and take a bow.

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