Growing up playing music, I used to get so frustrated by people telling me, “That’s such a great hobby!” When you’re young and learning an instrument – or making your art, or playing a sport, or anything where you daydream of it one day being your j-o-b, “hobby” just feels so deflating compared to your inflated sense of possibility.
As I got older, I figured out it was mostly out of love. The people who care about you actually want to keep you safe. Nobody fails at a hobby. There’s also a sense of fear in their advice. “Why would you want to be out on that limb when you can have fun doing this in your spare time?” It’s a cruel world and there are much more profitable ways to be mediocre.
And so the hobby versus profession idea goes into the junk drawer in our brains. It lays there dormant until some of us open it up again. When we do, all of the doubts, passions, and fears come back out with it. If we want to figure out what we could or should do, we can start with the terminology. For this, we have Seth Godin who crystallized the definitions in my mind as follows (paraphrasing):
A hobby is something we do for ourselves.
A profession is something we do for others.
Nobody does accounting as a hobby.* The just for fun, “not for profits” aspect is even how the IRS defines the difference. If we want to make the leap from hobby to profession, this is where we start. We have to define:
What is it?
Who’s it for?
Why do they need it/what problem does it solve?
A hobby is something we like to do, just for us, that scratches an itch we need to scratch. A profession, on the other hand, isn’t selfish.
The professional knows the work is in service to an audience they’ll need to attract. They figure out how to do the right work to make it work.
Both paths are fine, we just don’t want to be on one thinking we’re on the other. The starving artist is a hobbyist who thinks they’re a professional. This is what the people who care about you don’t want to see happen to you.
The honest hobbyist doesn’t have to worry about any of this. Making their art or writing a poem or even daydreaming about the amazing business they’ll maybe one day start is good enough. A proper hobby is fun. It’s what you want to do in your spare time.
But, if there’s a calling to do the work, the line can be crossed into making it a profession. If it’s not just good enough, if you do it even on the days you don’t want to, and if you can figure out a way to make it work, you can be a professional. This is what it takes to turn pro.
To the younger, younger selves included: Ask and answer the questions – What is it, who’s it for, and why do they need it? Then, get to it. There’s work to be done.
I highly recommend Seth Godin‘s book, “The Practice,” and his appearance discussing the book, these ideas, and much more on The Moment Podcast with Brian Koppelman from 11/17/2020.
*ok, you do and I’m sorry. I’m hopeful you can appreciate the analogy for the others. Keep at it. Those balance sheets aren’t going to balance themselves and I bet there’s one more deduction you can find if you keep looking. If you ever decide to go pro, the rest of this post still applies to you.