Why I Prefer Part-Time Work to Full-Time Passion
I admire you for following your passion. You're so lucky to be able to do what makes you happy.
I don't know how often I've heard these or similar words in my life. As a freelance translator, I do feel lucky to be able to write fiction on the side. Writing is where my heart is. Some might not consider me a true writer because I hold a daytime job, yet I don't want to quit this job to follow my passion full-time. In fact, it suits me to work as a translator during the daytime and do what I love at night, on the side. I like it that way. How dare I, right?
Three months ago, I did not like it. I felt dissatisfied with the limits and financial strain of freelance work, so I applied for a full-time position in videogame localization. Unless you're blessed with a specialization in law, medicine or technical manuals, translation is a notoriously underpaid field and has been for decades. My efforts to optimize and manage time more efficiently to up my #productivity did not seem to work and I felt creatively drained. The translation was creeping into my writing, coloring my style in an uncomfortable way (or so I thought). So I applied and went through the interviews but was eventually rejected because they could or would not meet my high salary expectations. The thing is, full-time employment is financially scalable only up to a certain point. Through conversations with HR and people who would've been my colleagues in that company, I realized I had more options as a freelancer after all, better control over how I spend my time. I found new joy in what I do.
Don't follow your passion
If I decided to 'follow my passion', I would quit a job that I like and enjoy, give up financial security and spend all my time trying to write for a living. Heaven? Quite on the contrary. This is why 'follow your passion' is not only bad advice, but also highly dangerous. It's plain unrealistic to expect your passion to sustain you right away or even in a few months.
Students are often told to follow their passion when picking a major. I don't know about you, but as a high schooler I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, let alone what I was passionate about (except writing, but studying creative writing does not guarantee you a job after graduation). This doesn't get better with age: It's always hard to predict in advance what you'll grow to love.
In his book So Good They Can't Ignore You, Cal Newport proposes an alternative: the so-called craftsman mindset. Contrary to the passion mindset, as a craftsman you focus on the value of what you can offer the world rather than what the world can offer you. As a result, you also focus more on creating meaningful output and getting better at what you do. According to Newport, this is crucial for building (not finding) a career you love. Anyone can do it with just about any job.
Deciding what your career will be early on is not only unnecessary, but can also be detrimental. Optionality, on the other hand, goes a long way towards withstanding the natural volatility of life and human society, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile. He advocates tinkering or “trial and error to figure things out and expose yourself to large potential upsides”, adding that many great inventions were toys at first. This sounds quite craftsman-esque, doesn't it? Newport proposes something similar by encouraging you to place small bets to explore how you might grow and stretch yourself responsibly.
I did just that when I wanted to branch out into translating videogames: I accepted small, (sadly) unpaid jobs from indie developers for a while before applying to localization studios that manage game localization for bigger publishers. Some rejected me, others have become regular clients. Now I'm doing it again with blogging. Neither of those bets require me to quit what I was doing before, but they do allow me to build up valuable career capital.
Competence and autonomy
'Follow your passion' has got it backwards: Instead of leading with passion and trusting that everything else will follow, we should strive to become better at what we do. When we gain competence and autonomy, passion follows naturally.
For me, this means getting enough job offers that I can choose to take the fun ones and decline the boring ones. It means having multiple clients so that it's not the end of the world if one decides for whatever reason that they wish to terminate our working relationship (which has never happened). And it means choosing when and how much I work in a given day or week. Yes, the freedom can be a drawback as well, but all in all, I still prefer it to traditional employment. Of course, this is just one way to achieve competence and autonomy. You could also develop rare and valuable skills to force your employers to grant you more autonomy in your full-time position or make the leap to contract work later in your career.
Flow and learning new things
What is flow? According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I, too, have been happiest at work when I slipped into a state of flow during translation, usually when I was working on a particularly challenging part or a text type that I had no prior experience with. When I'm writing, it is even easier to slip into this state because I'm always stretching myself, trying to create better stories. This is not only fun, but work in flow is also up to 500 percent more productive than work produced while not in flow.
Flow often happens when you have to learn new things to do your job well. Crucially, in order for you to be happy with your job, it should provide you with enough time to learn new things to begin with — not only to acquire valuable skills to use as leverage, but also for the sheer joy of learning. Again, you don't know how the skills you learn for fun on your own time might come in handy down the road and it's always good to have optionality.
Four months ago, I started practicing tea ceremony because I was increasingly fascinated with traditional Japan, intrigued by its simple elegance and eager to actively engage with Japanese culture in addition to studying the language and consuming Japanese media. As a surprising side effect, I learned a bunch of tea-specific vocabulary and got to engage with tea practitioners whose Japanese is different from what I'm used to in terms of language register as well as conversation topics. In other words, practicing tea ceremony has improved my Japanese skills in unexpected ways and even forged some connections that might be useful in the future.
The crucial point here is that I did not leave my day job to 'follow my passion' for tea. I did not even know that tea would develop into a passion and yet it has. Will I stay passionate about it for the rest of my life? I have no idea. Has it turned into a career? No. It might or it might not. Just like writing, tea is something that I am content to practice and improve on the side for now, whether it will eventually turn into a career or not. They might develop into rare and valuable skills and for this reason, I keep them on the back burner, just in case (and, you know, because they're my idea of fun).
Still thinking about following your passion? Think again. Consider whether you are economically and emotionally equipped to handle the initial phase of uncertainty. It might last a long time, maybe forever.
Personally, I always wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that writing did not provide a linear career path with steady income right out of university. So I did something marginally more responsible and studied to become a translator because I thought translation would help my writing (it has, but not in the way I thought it would). More importantly, it would've been foolish to jump into writing without planning for failure. I chose freelance translation rather than in-house employment because it allows me to make time for writing and other pursuits that might or might not lead to new and exciting career opportunities. If nothing else, I will be able to live and have different experiences to write about rather than spending the majority of my time on this earth glued to a computer screen. I'll enjoy the journey. You can too — if you ignore the seductive promise that all you need to do is follow your passion.