“Do Something You Love”, they said, when you were a kid.
“Pay your bills or they’ll turn the lights and the telephone off”, they said, when you were not so much a kid any more, right? (Let’s face it, using the electricity to charge your phone is probably something you love, for the record) Just another one of those little things they ‘forget’ to tell you about when they set you up to believe that you can have the life you want to live. Of course they also forgot to tell you that you’d need an MBA to yank espresso as a career at this point, and that you’ll need to be overwhelmed by debt – especially the MBA kind – in order to function as a human adult in the first world.
Ugh. Just ugh. If you’re a young person, freshly starting out in the world, this is not the blog for you. Not today, not this week, not if you want to remain a believer in the idea that you need to get that college degree and that high powered job you’ll leverage into a better, higher powered job in 2-3 years, maybe even with a startup. And if that’s something you love, then hey, go for it and we can talk when you’re twenty years down the road and trying to figure out what’s next in your life. No big deal at all.
If you’re like me – not a young person any more (perhaps never really that young, in hindsight) – and you have been, or still are, a cog in the very machine I’m describing, then perhaps, like me, you sit and wonder at the way you bought the whole premise. Lucky for me, I paid off my student debt many years ago; I did not have much at all, and I had the money to take care of it in one small chunk. I know plenty of people who have mountains, unbearable piles higher than mountains even, which is certainly not something they love.
Like some old nursery rhyme…
What happens when you decide that you want to do something you love, instead of something that you know how to do because it pays the bills? What’s the jumping off point that you have to find in order to make that leap of faith and decide that you’d be happier as a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker than you would be if you continue doing the job you know how to do, the one that you can do with your eyes closed, the one that currently pays your bills?
Most Americans, actually most people, don’t have months and months of savings banked, and aren’t able to just take a year or two off and decide whether or not their painting skills are going to be good enough to support them in the style to which they’ve run up debts. It’s a very scary thought that you might want to just put your nice 4 bedroom mid century ranch on the market and downsize to an 1100 square foot cottage in another part of town… or another part of the country. Maybe that idea isn’t something you love, and maybe it never will be.
I watched that Free Solo movie the other night on Hulu – wow, that kid Alex, he’s got some serious dedication to his craft. Or he’s just batshit crazy, I think that’s more what it is, but then again I race sailboats, I don’t climb cliffs. He lived in a van for nine years. Nine years – in a van – as his sole residence. No shower, no laundry, sad to say the kid’s table manners make him look like he was raised by wolves. Who eats out of the pot with a spatula? Get a fork, kid, and up your game. And that poor girlfriend, don’t even get me started there.
What’s the point of talking about this kid? Yeah, my point is that once you become an adult you are way less likely to decide that living in a van for nine years without a shower or a toilet is the way you want to live your life in practice, even if the theory sounds fun. So how do you get out from under a mountain of obligations and possibly debt so that you can go on with your life and do something you love?
The way I see it, there are two options here.
The first one, which is the safe option, is the one where you pretend you are going to save up the money to buy your first house – remember that? Eating ramen noodles, saving every dime, not buying anything, not using your credit cards, keeping your bills to the bare minimum for the time you needed to reach the goal? No dinners out, no movies, no vacations, all that stuff… I certainly remember that like it was yesterday and it’s been more than twenty years since I first bought a house. This is the smart way to do it; it’s tough and requires discipline and it’s not a lot of fun, but it reasonably buys you a couple of years to make or break it after you quit your soul sucking corporate job and go off to find yourself and your craft in the process.
The second one, the crazy one, well you know what I’m going to say. It’s the one where you just check out right now, before you put your house up for sale, before you figure out what reasonably priced small car you can pay cash for, before you go out for another nice dinner and put it on your card, it’s the one where you forget about all these obligations and you just run off into the sunset with your hair on fire because you can’t take another day of not doing something you love.
Funny, I think the second option is called a mid life crisis. Funnier still, I think there’s an entire Gen X that’s rolling right into the middle of a collective mid life crisis, and we’re not really ready to shoulder the burdens of the aging boomers who came before us and we’re tired of picking up the common sense slack of the millennials who came after us. It’s really a generational crisis with no real end in sight. We’re being backed into a corner and at some point we’re all (or a large enough percentage of us) going to decide to run out with our hair on fire and go live the hippie lifestyle in tiny houses off the grid using solar power to heat water and charge our phones while we weave and paint and macrame and weld and blow glass to our hearts content.
We’ll be growing our own food, and if we’re not living in tiny houses, we’ll be living in communes, like we did in Austin in the 1980s. It’s unfortunate that all the good drugs are too dangerous these days, with the fentanyl poisoning risk, but at least the weed is legal, potent and way more reasonably priced than it was for the same quality on the black market.
It’s not all sunshine and roses these days.
While the internet is certainly a great equalizer, it also generates a shit ton of noise, and it’s incredibly difficult to overcome that noise. So if you’re thinking about taking the leap and you don’t have a plan in mind for how to sell your hand crafted, made with love, #makersgonnamake wares, then you should at least be aware that you are going to need a plan, and pronto.
Even if you are as good as Picasso, Beethoven, and Bronte all rolled into one, you are still going to need to be able to either market yourself like Ford or you will have to get incredibly lucky – like winning the lottery while delivering sextuplets lucky – and someone will want to represent you and your work with all the energy they possess in order to ensure that you can do something you love and pay your bills at the same time.
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Most makers find themselves spending just as much time marketing as they do making. It’s one of those ugly little secrets that art fair exhibitors have known for what seems like ever – you can’t just make, you have to actually do something with what you make or else it’s a hobby and not a life. No matter what your intentions with your craft, you cannot forget this fact. It should be your mantra, really. Making things and giving them away is nice, and it’s even nicer if you inherited money, were employee number four at a Silicon Valley unicorn, or patented something super popular at a young age.
Last but not least – if you’ve been running a business, maybe not doing something you love, but dealing with the day to day operations, then you should understand that this isn’t going to go away when you make the leap to something you want to do. Taxes still have to be paid, invoices still have to be generated, inventory still has to be counted and accounted for on a regular basis. So if you are terrible at those things, you’ll need to think clearly about how you can avoid getting into the trap of having to handle those things yet again, since they’ll certainly drag you down.