A common phrase is that “if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life”. I have heard this phrase more times than I can count. Usually the people who say it to me have the best intentions. They are trying to validate my choice to follow my passion, they are in some sense trying to internalize and understand their own feelings around their career choices, what ever they may be, and its generally a good willed slogan all of us have probably uttered at one point in our lives. But I’d like to just take a moment to speak directly to young people who are on the cusp of trying to start a career in something they love. This phrase is dead wrong.
In my experience, and as far as I can see in the experiences of people I know, if you choose to pursue a career in something that you truly love it seems to be that you will work 5 times harder. You will need to put in 60-70 hour work weeks. Holidays will not exist in your world. Every penny you make will need to be fought hard for and dumped right back into your passion. You will have to constantly go out on limbs and try to excel at things way outside your comfort zone. In short, it is HARD work to follow your passion and do what you love as a professional career.
If that phrase actually rings true for some people I have yet to meet them.
But it’s not as grim as it sounds. I mean, it is very true that you will need to work very hard and fight constantly for your ability and right to pursue a career you are passionate about. But the key word in that phrase is “love”. So, while you are working those 60 hour weeks you will feel good about it. It is rewarding to strive towards a goal that you determined for yourself instead of someone else determining it for you. It feels good to wake up every day knowing that you are your own boss and you have control over your own schedule.
So, if you do want to pursue lutherie (or some other love of yours) as a career what can you expect? What challenges await?
Well, I think first and foremost, the barrier you will first have to overcome is the barrier of pressure from those close to you. I think everyone who embarks on this type of journey is met first with a lot of doubt and pushback from friends and loved ones. This is only natural because they care about you and often they can see the risks involved much more clearly than you can because your vision is clouded with passion. I wouldn’t say you should approach this barrier with reckless abandon cutting off ties with everyone you know but you are going to have to come to terms with the fact that if you do indeed decide to pursue this path you will lose relationships and you will have to develop a pretty thick skin for the criticism and doubt that others you care about throw your way. This process will only make you come to appreciate those who support and believe in you even more. The people who stick by you from the beginning, even when they don’t understand it, are pretty remarkable folks and as you go you need to make sure to care for those relationships.
Once you sort of prove to people that you are in it for the long haul you will then experience constant advice. Everyone will want to tell you how to do what you are trying to do. At first its helpful. But, while always well intentioned, after you gain some competence the endless unsolicited advice can become exhausting at best and at worst can actually muddy the water for you making it more difficult to act on your intuition and guide yourself through decisions that ultimately you are alone in having to make for yourself. So, try to strike a balance between letting people in, embracing them, but also knowing and trusting yourself. Follow through with what you know is right for you.
Something else that you will experience is just tons of self doubt, fear and uncertainty. Nobody in this world starts a business or embarks on a large artistic endeavor without having to trudge through these feelings. We could lump all these sorts of feelings into the term “suffering”. In my mind there are really three ways to deal with suffering.
–The first way is to run or avoid. This is what we are biologically wired to do and its what most of us do. Avoiding the suffering is the main reason I believe most people don’t start their own business or pursue their passions in any real way.
–The second is to resist it. This is when you really turn what you’re doing into a fight. When you are resisting these things you feel like you are constantly running around trying to figure everything out and solve all the worlds problems. Sometimes its helpful but usually its just mentally and emotionally exhausting.
–The third way is to change your perspective and embrace those feelings. Instead of seeing these emotions as negatives, try to see them as positives. Criticism from others? Use it as information to make yourself better.
I once had a complete stranger write me 3 long emails informing me that I was nobody. Seriously. I think they were trying to be helpful in some way but it really was done clumsily and ended up really kind of ruining my mood for a few hours. But, I just became aware of the fact that it had effected my mood and I started to try to switch my perspective and tell myself “you know, they could have worded it better, they could have been kinder about it… but at the end of the day forget the emotional part of it. What information were they providing me that can be helpful?” And I spent the next day or so thinking of different marketing approaches and advertising. My point is these feelings are socially seen as negative but that doesn’t mean you have to view them as such. You can turn them into motivation, insights, and fuel to work harder or smarter.
Another big challenge is time. Time hits you in two different ways.
-The first is the realization that begins to dawn on you as you get a little older that there just isn’t enough time in the day or in life to accomplish everything you’d like to. Unfortunately thats just a fact of life and the sooner you come to terms with that the sooner you will be able to start prioritizing and managing your time and stop spreading yourself too thin. I always wanted to write a rock opera. I’m not the kind of person to say “never” but I’m at peace with the fact that most likely, I won’t.
-The second way time gets you is that when you pursue a passion, more often than not, it takes a long time to find some success. More conventional careers have the advantage of being pretty standardized. You work your way up a ladder like everyone else does at a similar pace with similar efforts. But in a less conventional career like lutherie… there really isn’t a formula or a standard. And because the product themselves take time to build, it takes even longer to accomplish enough to even begin to build any sort of reputation or resume. So, once you decide you want to do it, you got to commit to the long haul. It is a marathon, not a sprint and you might as well just settle in.
Another challenge is money. This one is pretty self explanatory and is different for everybody. The situation we find ourselves in when we start to try our hand at lutherie (or whatever our passion is), and the circumstances of our lives really dictate how this one will effect you. But I think its safe to say that unless you are independently wealthy there is no getting around this being tricky for you.
Let me take this opportunity to say, in no uncertain terms, that it is very very hard to make a living in any creative field but particularly in lutherie. I will probably write about this in more depth in a later post. So right now here is what I will say about this. If you are serious about pursuing your passion, you must take the business end of your passion seriously. You can’t shy away from it or think of it as this terrible part of it. Its part of it just as much as chiseling or painting or photographing is part of it. Take the business seriously, take classes or teach yourself about basic business management, finances, taxes, marketing. Know what cashflow is and get good at monitoring it. In an industry where you will operate as close to the bone as you will in lutherie it is absolutely imperative that you are good with your money.
The biggest thing that this means for younger people especially is that you have got to come to terms with the fact that if you want this you will have to give up a lot of your social activities that involve spending cash. For the majority of my career I have spent my Friday and Saturday nights in the shop. The only times I really ever spend money anymore going out are at guitar shows and occasionally when I go out to network. You will just simply have too many business related expenses to spare any dough on things that don’t directly contribute to your craft. Thats the bottom line. At least it is for me.
Building upon the time and money challenges- its very common and tempting to begin to compare your track with others. People you see as your peers. You will look at your time and money situation and theirs and more often than not you will be tempted to ask yourself “why am I not as successful as them?” or “why am I not getting the attention they are?”. What I will say is this. Understand that nobody is ever going to show you their full deck of cards. As you get to know other people in your industry better, what you will find is very few of them really and truly built their success by themselves from nothing. For the most part there is almost always a previous career or a supportive partner, or an inheritance, or a benefactor, or any number of other advantages that are selectively omitted from their website’s biography. The other thing I will say on the subject is that is all ok. You can’t begrudge peoples advantages or the fact that they used them. The reality is we all have our own unique set of advantages and disadvantages and our success depends on how well we play to our strengths, improve our weaknesses, and use the tools available to us. Having a spouse who earns good money and supports your beginnings does not take away from you the years of hard work, late nights, and other sacrifices you’ve made to get to where you are. Don’t hold advantages against people but also be realistic in how you view their success. Don’t compare your own success (or lack thereof) to anybody else. There is just so much to their story that you don’t know. Looking at other people and comparing your life to theirs is a recipe for negativity, unproductiveness and a giant chip on your shoulder. None of which are helpful to you on your journey.
Of course there are many other issues you will have to deal with as you pursue your passion. I’ve just touched on a number that I think are pretty universal. The truth is, pursuing a passion and turning it into a successful and workable business that has longevity and can provide you a sustainable living is one of the hardest things a person can do. It takes guts, relentless determination, the ability to continue to pick yourself up off the floor over and over again, an obsessive drive, and inspiration. You will need to set goals and drive hard towards them but have the flexibility to change course and adapt. You’ve got to be determined to be the best and fight continuously for your place at the table but at the same time you have to be compassionate towards yourself and accept your imperfection. Its a tricky balancing act.
However, if you have the temperament, and you can deal with failure in healthy ways, I think that pursuing your passion, turning it into a business and trying to be the best business owner you can be, is an incredibly rewarding experience. Once you feel that sense of control over your own life it becomes very difficult to think about working for someone else. The sense of ownership is overwhelming sometimes because the responsibility is all on you all the time. But its also very empowering because you are the master of your own story. It has taught me so much about life, myself, what I’m capable of, and my limitations. Its been humbling but also has built a level of confidence in myself as a human being that I never had. Its quite the experiment and I think its a very worthy way of living one’s life.
Its important to know at all times that you can fail. In fact, statistically you are likely to fail. But thats ok. Its cliche but I would rather look back and say that I was brave enough to give it my all and try my hardest then to have never even given myself the opportunity to see if I could do it. Failure is a figment of the imagination when you really look at it. Life is simply a series of events we ascribe meaning to. I always like to keep in mind that if I ever reach a point where my business and passion is clearly just not working as a sustainable career and I have no logical choice but to throw in the towel, I still win. Because I had my moment, I learned more than I could have in any college course about life and survival, and I can move onto anything else with the skill sets that I’ve developed. And with that in mind, I do feel that following my passion is a calculated risk worth taking.
Just make no mistake…. doing what you love does NOT mean you never work a day in your life.
LET ME PREFACE THIS ARTICLE BY SAYING THAT IT IS MY OPINION THAT A LUTHIER ISN’T REALLY A LUTHIER UNLESS THEY UNDERSTAND AND HAVE A PRETTY SOLID COMMAND OVER TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES, BUILD STYLES…
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