You know the cliche: "Do what you love and the money will follow." That’s all fine to tell a new grad who feels a passion for orthopedic surgery or management consulting. But what if you’ve got seemingly less remunerative desires?
I remember asking this question coming out of college years ago when I accepted a year-long internship at USA Today. It was paid, but not well. I figured journalism and writing in general would be a gritty existence—one reason many journalists go to law school after a few years.
I now know the truth is more complicated. Yes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for writers ($69,250) is much lower that for chemical engineers ($104,340), but it's still a livable wage, especially if you are doing what you love.
Here’s advice from people in "passion" careers on how you can do what you love and still eat.
Create an online home for your fans, and connect with them frequently to best market to them. You should also think about exactly who your customers will be, and work with them in mind.
"It's a hard world for composers to make their way in, but so much is easier now than it used to be," says Dominick DiOrio, a composer who’s written choral music and operas. "Technology, social media, and crowd-sourcing allow for so many ways for people to connect with your music, even if they aren’t physically present to support you during a show."
It also helps to think creatively about how your work can be used. Mary Mazzio is the owner of 50 Eggs Films, a documentary production company that’s produced such films as A Hero for Daisy, and the forthcoming Underwater Dreams. Her films get shown to general audiences via TV or theater distribution, but she also aims to make films that will have a long life in the educational market. Ten9Eight, and Lemonade Stories—both about entrepreneurship—have become staples in economics classes. Schools buy teaching guides in addition to viewing rights. "There’s a little bit more margin," she says. It’s good business to give your best customers what they want.
You might hit a project out of the park, but with most creative projects, the biggest win is that you’ll get to do the next one. That means people need to want to keep working with you. The biggest obstacle for artists, says children’s book illustrator LeUyen Pham, "is lack of organization." In art school, Pham, who’s illustrated such books as Julianne Moore’s Freckleface Strawberry series, took a class on small business management.
She learned to be "respectful of the business side of publishing as well, so I’m vigilant with making deadlines. I think in this industry I’m considered an extremely reliable illustrator, and believe me, more publishers would rather work with a sensible artist than a prima donna any day."
Quantity and quality are not at odds. In fact, quality usually arises out of quantity, which is great since doing more work means you get paid for more work too.
Pham changes her style frequently to stay interested in the work and fresh, and while having one look for your art is "definitely the road to superstardom, it’s also a very narrow road in which, as an artist, you become pigeonholed by yourself."
Constantly redefining her style, coupled with hard work, "allows me to release many more books in a year than the average artist. I think most children’s book artists produce one to two books a year, usually picture books. Publishers won’t let them release more than that because then they start to compete with themselves." With varied work, "I can easily release between four to seven books a year"—and correspondingly, earn more money.
Danny Kofke found his passion as an elementary school teacher. "First grade can be very challenging but also very rewarding," he says. When he and his wife started a family, though, he figured he needed to do something higher-paying, and so he took a job selling high-end rugs. He didn’t like it. "I realized that I was much happier making $40,000 a year teaching than I would be making $80,000 and selling flooring," he says.
So he figured out how to earn more from his passion. He tutored and taught summer school and, more importantly, he’s taken what he’s learned from teaching children and extended it to a different passion: Teaching adults how to manage money. "This is still teaching—just a different form of teaching," he says, and his books How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher’s Salary and the forthcoming Mini-Millionaires: Teaching Kids How To Win With Money) and workshops provide additional revenue streams that keep his family going.
Mazzio likewise supplements her income by giving speeches about entrepreneurship and women’s sports (the subject of A Hero For Daisy). With Underwater Dreams, a tale of immigrant children winning a robotics competition, she’ll soon be speaking about immigration and STEM.
You want to be smart about the business side. But you also want to keep getting better, and you want to enjoy life too. Says DiOrio: "It’s important to leave time to be inspired by other things in your life: food, family, love, nature, beauty, art, literature. All of this feeds your creative work as a musician. If we starve that side, we run the risk of creating music without connection to people, and there is no greater recipe for failure in this field."
Mazzio suggests thinking of a Venn diagram, where one circle is what people will pay for but the other is, "What are you excited about? Something can be super popular, but if you’re not excited about it as a filmmaker it’s going to be a piece of crap." And there’s no point following your passion just to have that be the outcome.