About eight years ago, I was writing grant proposals for a land trust on the North Coast of California. The Executive Director, who’s fiancé was a former river rafting guide turned realtor, took us on a team-building exercise of rafting down the South Fork of the Trinity River in spring. It was a Class III river in spots—nothing too daunting, but some fun, if chilly, rapids were in store. I’ve always loved being in the water so I was more than game.
My only complaint about the experience was unexpectedly having to change into and out of borrowed, ill-fitting wetsuits in front of our co-workers, including two rather good looking young men. I had planned on wearing cut-off blue jeans shorts over my bikini bottoms – my standard river swimming attire designed to hide my body’s favorite fat-storing regions. I think the worst moment was having to give back the wetsuits before our vehicle arrived from our put-in point with our dry clothes and towels. When it finally arrived I had to make the “march of shame” to the vehicle in nothing but my bikini and my ill-prepared (as in non) bikini-waxed aforementioned fat-storage/thigh region. Who knows? Looking back this might have been a real turn on. But at the time and for years after, it was mortifying to think about.
While we were on the river, the Director’s fiancé talked about being a rafting guide. His worst experience was when a little girl fell out of the raft in a big rapid, and was actually trapped underwater for what was probably under 30 seconds, but would have felt like a terrifying eternity. But it was something else he said that has never left me. “Don’t do what you love for a living. It’ll kill it.”
I never thought grant writing for a living was necessarily “doing what I loved,” but rather, “doing something I’m good at, for which I get paid decently, and which (sometimes) results in some good in the world.” Not a bad deal. And for a while, it suited me well. That is, until a few years ago, in my late 30s, when I began to feel more and more dissatisfied. Now, in my 41st year, I still enjoy certain aspects of my work, but find myself less and less able to put up with the parts I don’t like: ridiculously complicated government grant applications, unrealistic expectations from clients, or trying to write about a program I have no interest in and know little about, and yet somehow be able to inspire a funder to support that program.
And even when I am working with a client I love, who’s work I wholeheartedly support, I realize that good writing, no matter how easily that comes to you, is hard work. My brain is often not up to the task eight hours a day, or even six. I am looking around at what I can do that I actually love, or if that is not possible from a financial standpoint, then carving out time in my life to do what I love despite having to also log the hours doing what I must to get the bills paid.
I recognize that this quandary is one of a privileged nature. But that doesn’t make it any less real for those of us seeking—requiring—a life of meaning, creativity, fulfillment, and fun. And really, that should be all of us. In my perfect world, everyone would have enough money to support themselves and be able to practice and master whatever craft they chose, sharing that creativity and joy with the world.
It seems that everywhere I look, people of varying age and social strata are grappling with this issue. Some, like me, are directly acknowledging it and want to talk about it with anyone they can. A friend from high school who is an expert baker of gorgeous and clever cakes, cake pops, cupcakes, you name it (clearly a labor of love), is also stuck in a job she hates in order to support her family. Her Facebook posts about this are becoming more and more frantic. Some are quietly stewing about it, but their dissatisfaction with their lives nonetheless comes out, usually in the form of extreme grumpiness.
A recent case in point: the coffee shop owner who sullenly refuses to make eye contact, and rolls his eyes if your order takes longer than five seconds. I was trying to decide whether to go with whole-wheat toast or an English muffin alongside my scramble. I made a decision but I wasn’t one hundred percent in. After a moment, I said “whole wheat, I think.” At this point the owner had had enough. “You think, or you know?” he demanded with irritation. Images of Seinfeld’s famous Soup Nazi immediately came to mind. The last thing I wanted was to be turned away with no breakfast—and worse—no coffee. Theorizing that he doesn’t much like his job, I mentioned the scene to one of my writing group friends. Her first words were, “How could you be unhappy owning a coffee shop?”
My friend is a part-time instructor at two different community colleges, but is working on a cool murder mystery novel on the side (that is, when she is not commuting to and from two campuses or busting her butt grading sub-par or plagiarized essays from her less than enthusiastic remedial composition students or dealing with office politics, all while praying she gets hired again the following year to do it all over again). She admits that she loves her job, making all the crap somehow bearable. But she also spends her recuperation time at local coffee shops, hence the wistful longing for a sensual life surrounded by pungent roasted coffee beans, bacon and cheddar quiches, and blueberry scones.
I thought for a minute about the romantic idea of owning a coffee shop versus reality: The expense of all your young, self-absorbed baristas and other staff, and dealing with the public all day long and their annoying, self-absorbed needs (“I want a vanilla decaf latte, but only one pump, and don’t over-steam the milk, and it needs to be non-fat milk—oh actually do you have almond milk? You really should because…”).
Doing what you love can also be financially straining. My partner David has been making pottery for 25 years. He has honed his craft and now produces exquisite bowls, mugs, and vases. But because, though beautiful, they are utilitarian, they don’t count as “fine art” and therefore do not command the price tag that goes along with that moniker. He sells them at craft fairs and art shows around northern California. This used to be a viable method of making a living, provided that living didn’t involve cars less than 20 years old or roofs that didn’t leak (What? You want a perfectly dry ceiling? So picky!) But these days, it’s gotten downright impossible.
I’ve taken to accompanying David on his summer craft and art show circuit so that at least he doesn’t have to be the last, lonely vendor packing up pottery after the sun goes down. The shows go something like this: I sit in the shade of a pine tree on a park lawn, watching crafters set up for the Graeagle Arts and Crafts Fair in the northern Sierra foothills. There’s a dense circle of bear poop, about half of which consists of shredded plastic food wrapper, about 20 feet to my left. Directly in front of me stands a hot-pink Easy Up with a giant glittery banner that reads: “The Original ‘Ring Around the Toezies.’”
That’s right, this is not your garden-variety imitation custom fitted toe ring booth. This is the real deal. Woe to the pedicured foot that lacks a custom fitted toe ring. Behind me is the Graeagle Restaurant where the homestyle breakfast potatoes smell like onion soup mix (no, that’s not their tag line). Crafters young and old (mostly old), importers, and a few artists like David erect their booths, moving slowly and deliberately in the beating, late-afternoon July sun. They’ve done this a hundred times. Every year the profits are less but the workload’s the same. But what else are ya gonna do? “At least I work for myself” is the common refrain. The crafters ask each other, how was your show? “Pretty good” is the vague reply, said quickly, softly, in case the one who asked didn’t fare so well. Or, “not bad, not bad,” with a relieved nod. Or, “terrible” with a slight drop of the head. More and more often, it’s “not as good as last year.”
After half a life spent making pottery, David is realizing that the time in to money earned ratio is not cutting it, and schlepping and setting up heavy ceramic pots all over the place is not as fun as it used to be. (Plus, his partner is sick of driving around in old cars in which something else breaks every other week.) So he’s shifting to photography, and he’s great at it (in part because of his excellent artist’s eye, attention to detail, and perfectionism—but also because he loves it). Though starting a new business is a leap of faith, especially after age 50.
I think this is what keeps people from taking the plunge into “doing what they love.” Fear of financial failure—or fear of failure in general. If you fail at “doing what you love,” then what’s left? On the other hand, is that even possible? If you love it, and are doing it, then that’s success right there. It’s probably our accepted definition of success and failure that’s part of the problem. Ultimately, it’s not a requirement that we attempt to meld our money-earning activities with our passion and creativity. And maybe, as the river-rafter-turned-realtor surmises, it’s not even optimal. When you get the business side of things mixed up with the creative side, things can go haywire, and you may end up overworked and worn out, with a watered down product to boot.
For an example of a master craftsperson who got big and then downsized to find happiness, check out this little write up on Chico’s own local baker, Dave Miller (who I recently heard, is also featured in Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked). I am inspired by what Miller’s done, and grateful I can buy his luscious whole-wheat sourdough bread each week at the Farmer’s Market.
I’m not going to end this with a commandment for you, or anyone, to quit their day job and lunge themselves chest first into their passion, in part because I myself haven’t mustered that courage, that faith. If I did, I’d plunge myself into creative writing and design—maybe publish my own magazine. But instead right now I’m doing just a little bit—“using it so I don’t lose it.” As another friend, also a writer, put it: “Give yourself an hour everyday to write. Don’t judge it. Just do it.” Sage advice.
Do something you love even if it’s just an hour a day. Surely we can all find a way to afford that.
 TMI? I apologize. More on this topic? See my piece on living the life…in the buff…at Harbin Hot Springs.  Including but not limited to: Providing the 17th round of micro-edits, scrapping a project at the 11th hour and starting over, and my favorite: “Can you write a 30-page proposal for this program we haven’t fully thought out and have no idea how to implement? It’s due on Friday.”  And now for a shameless plug: Hire us to beautifully capture your daughter’s wedding! Check out David’s web and Facebook pages for his striking portraits.