How To Turn a Hobby Into a Profession

Originally posted Good Guy Swag.

Hobby or Passion? The Secret To Becoming A Professional

It’s a question I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot lately. Maybe it’s a by-product of being in my thirties, but once you hit this season of life, the expectation is that you’re hitting you’re stride, you’re making your way in the world, you’re experiencing success.

It can be frustrating when that’s not happening.

Recently I was talking with a friend who was lamenting lack of success in Hollywood. Despite some good productive activity over the last 10 years, this friend has yet to lock in some of the basic elements of career success. There are some mitigating factors to the situation (not living in Hollywood, having a full-time job in a different field), but with all that, my friend was basically saying, “why doesn’t anyone care about me?”

Everyone feels entitled to success. I get it. In our mind, we are all geniuses, and the biggest problem is that no one sees how good we are. If only people knew, we say, we would be in a different place. We would have that dream job, we would land the big promotion, we would be the head of our department, we would have that elusive success.

Whenever we start to ask the question, “Why don’t I have the success I want?”, it’s important to ask a bigger question: “Am I pursuing a profession, or a hobby?”

Hobbies are interests we pursue when we find the time. Maybe we work full-time at something else, and in our free time we (fill in the blank). My wife’s hobby is gardening; she gets to it a few hours every week or two. She reads up on it, she knows more about gardening than I do, she can identify many different kinds of plants. But despite her knowledge, it remains a hobby — something she does to restore her soul, but not something that is the constant focus of her attention.

Professionals, by contrast, have achieved a degree of mastery in their chosen field. They have won awards, received recognition from other professionals, or otherwise had the quality of their work validated by people in a position to know.
The simplest way to differentiate between whether you’re pursuing a hobby or a profession is whether you’ve been paid. I’ve met people who describe themselves as professionals, when the simple (and painful) reality is that they’re simply hobbyists, spending more time talking about what they want to do than they do actually doing it. As a friend once said, “people come to LA to be in the industry without trying to become the very best artists they can.”

How To Turn A Hobby Into A Profession

No professional starts out as one, of course. Every professional started out doing what they do as a hobby. When I was 7 years old I wrote my first short story. It was terrible, but when I finished, all I wanted to do was write more, and I did — eventually writing and directing plays, and then writing screenplays in college as I fell in love with film. Writing started as a hobby and became a passion, and I believed that if I worked with enough single-minded determination, it would eventually become a profession. When my first screenplay was a quarterfinalist in a competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it was a tremendous validation. I was not a professional yet, not by a long shot, but there was hope.

Everyone dreams of coming to LA and getting discovered, but the reality is that, as in any field, getting discovered only comes after putting in hours of work. (Malcolm Gladwell famously pegs it at 10,000.) There is no such thing as an overnight success. By all accounts it takes at least 10 years in Hollywood to experience success, and now it’s more like 15. That’s a long time to wait for success, but more than that, it’s a long time to make a hobby and a passion into a profession. It requires the willingness to make sacrifices — to choose what you want, over what you want right now. When I moved to LA, I had to provide for my family, so I worked a full-time job and wrote on nights and weekends. But I was dedicated and committed, and within two years had made three short films and was represented by my first manager. In addition, I volunteered for friends’ films, went to networking events, connected with fellow alumni from my college…it might as well have been a full-time job! I worked tirelessly to hone my craft and build my network. I knew what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way. Being a professional filmmaker may have been a long-term goal, but I did everything I could to make it my most important one.

I have found that the most important quality that moves us from hobby, to passion, to profession is a quality that Adam Grant refers to in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success as grit. Grit describes our willingness to work hard, to put in the man-hours, to make the sacrifices necessary for success. It requires sacrifice to live in LA — a famously expensive city. It requires sacrifice to provide for your family in the season in-between a hobby becoming a profession. It requires sacrifice to subject your work to the hardest criticism possible in the hopes of getting better. But if we are not willing to put in the work–if we are not willing to make the sacrifices, to test our grit — then we are merely hobbyists masquerading as professionals. There are no shortcuts to success.

Jesus once said that “where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” What he meant was, look at the things you’re focused on — that will reveal your heart. In essence, he said, “look at what you’re doing. That’s what you love.” Life is about choices, and the choices we make reveal the things that we love. The hard reality is that choosing something means not choosing something else. It’s impossible to have it all. We need to pay attention to the choices we’re making. If you aren’t making choices that are in the service of the success you seek, then perhaps it’s not success you’re seeking.

If you’re frustrated about the lack of success you’re currently experiencing, there are a few questions you might consider asking: 

1. Do you have a talent for what it is you say you want to do? Are people cautioning you to try something else, or does everyone know that you should be doing what you say you want to do?

2. What is your plan for success? Successful people are disciplined people who form and follow a plan for success. Is your plan clear? Is it realistic? Is it measurable?

3. Are you making and maintaining connections and relationships with other ambitious, like-minded people? Are you surrounding yourself with people who can challenge your goals and hold you accountable? Are they reading your work and offering constructive, encouraging feedback?

4. Are you seeing improvement in your efforts? Is your skill set improving?

If you don’t know how to answer these questions, it’s entirely possible that you need to re-evaluate whether the success you say you want to have is the success you want to have.

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