I am super fortunate to be among the 0.001% (my estimate) of full-time artists in the world. I was able to quit my day job two years ago when I got a book deal for my essays and drawings, and since then I’ve been finding ways to sustain myself by making and sharing my illustrations and writing. It’s totally the dream, and I’m grateful every day. Even though I put in a solid 10+ years of overlapping odd jobs to get to this point, I still don’t feel deserving of the flexibility and fun that comes with getting paid to do something I’d do for free—and did for free for a decade.
Because of the elusive nature of the position I’m in (a dream job), I’m often asked the same questions revolving around the same concept: “How did you find your passion?” and, “How did you turn your passion into a career?”
I used to ask these same questions too, but I framed them as, “How did everyone else seem to figure out what their passion is?” and “If I find it, why would I want to ruin it by making it my job?” It seemed like “finding my passion” was the most important way to determine a career path, but I hadn’t found mine. It also felt like the trickiest foundation on which to build a career. What if my passion didn’t make any money? What if I grew tired of it after a while?
Now, I’d tell my past self: I didn’t become a full-time artist because I magically turned a passion into a career, but rather because I took a very twisting, convoluted path to get to where I am today. I know a lot of people who stumbled upon a special talent or offering through lots of trial and error, and ultimately found a way to make a living off of it—and still wouldn’t consider it their passion. So, I encourage all creative people to relax and stop obsessing over passion. If you haven’t found yours, or if you’re working a job you don’t particularly love, you are in the majority.
If “Find your passion” and “Love what you do” don’t resonate as goals for you, may I suggest these goals instead:
1. Be proud of your work
When I was working multiple minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet as I figured out my life, I read this Martin Luther King quote that had a profound effect on me: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
I was always questioning what I was doing as a barista, a teacher, a glorified receptionist, and it took a toll on my self-worth. Reading this shifted my thinking from a place of entitlement—“I’m too good for this job”—to “What can I bring to this job? How can I make myself proud?” Instead of focusing on the pay or the work itself, I thought about how I could feel good about it. As a barista, I knew the labor that went into coffee bean picking and vowed to take my work seriously in order to honor the workers who harvested the espresso beans I was using. I tried to make each cup better than the last. This mindset gave my jobs meaning—in fact, as much meaning as I now experience as an artist. One career isn’t inherently more meaningful than another if you bring a strong sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness to whatever you do.
So, instead of asking “Do I love what I do?” ask “What am I proud of at work?”
2. Be someone worth missing
Almost every job has the opportunity to help other people, which is tremendously fulfilling. In fact, the most satisfying part of my career now is not “doing something I love,” but getting to help other people. My life has been significantly improved by the work of storytellers and artists who have been through the same challenges as I have, and now I’m getting to return that favor by sharing my stories with others in hopes that they’ll feel less alone.
However, I’ve gotten this type of satisfaction from working in all kinds of jobs. Even when I worked retail, I knew that I wasn’t just selling clothes; I was offering a feeling to someone. I wanted women to feel great about themselves, and I took that part of my job seriously. When I quit my job at a boutique, I know I was missed by people who came into the shop. I realized I’d made deep and real connections with my customers and many of them are still good friends. To me, that’s every bit as meaningful as the work I do now.
So, instead of asking “Is my job important?” ask “Am I an important part of people’s lives? What do people say about my work?”
3. Play and have fun
I suspect the real reason that people want to turn their passion into a career is because it’s fun! Getting to do art as part of my work is a lot of fun, and often reminds me of the best parts of being a kid. I love tapping into a creative, playful part of myself; I have a lot of joy in my day-to-day.
But, even as an artist, I don’t have quite as much fun as I did at my worst office job. Why? I had to make that terrible job fun for myself. And, because of that, I developed some really good friendships with colleagues, and found some things I love to do, like doodling on my notes during meetings. If I hadn’t endured a year of a truly boring job, I never would have found that I really liked to draw. Sometimes, your passion can only be found in a desperate situation!
When I was working the early morning shift at a bakery, I had the monotonous task of writing out the names of pastries every single day—something I dreaded doing. After three days of doing it, I got so sick of my handwriting that I couldn’t even look at it. I decided to invent a new kind of handwriting that would be fun for me to write, and now that handwriting contributes to my distinct style of illustration. I would have never developed my handwriting if not for that job, and, subsequently, may never have become an illustrator.
So, instead of asking, “Have I found my passion?” ask “How am I enjoying myself right now?”
4. And finally, get something useful out of it
Something you don’t necessarily learn in art school or creative writing classes is how to market yourself. I hear this from artists all the time; they have the talent, but don’t know the first thing about building a platform and selling their work. I wouldn’t have known any of this either. However, when I started illustrating at age 28, I’d already had a lot of jobs that taught me truly useful skills. I learned how to do social media from a nonprofit communications position, I learned about sales and pitching myself from a retail job, I learned about discipline from food service, I developed public speaking skills from teaching English in South America.
All of these jobs that had nothing particularly to do with my “passion” actually contributed in very real ways to what I do now. Not one of my jobs is wasted. When I finally found something I consistently enjoyed doing, I had a lot of skills from my scattered resume to transform it into a career.
So, instead of asking, “Is this my career forever?” ask “What am I learning right now? What skills am I picking up that I wouldn’t learn anywhere else?”
For some more touching life lessons, sprinkled with a drop of wit and beauty, head over to Mari Andrew’s Wix website and book, ‘Am I There Yet?’.