There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to (giving advice about) choosing a profession— “follow your bliss,” or, “do something practical.” The unspoken “truth” of the first option is that it often means making more sacrifices and doing the starving-artist gig (unless of course your bliss means being something like a plastic surgeon). When people tell you to do something practical, what they really mean is do something that will make you lots of money. These are usually the people who will tell you that you can “do what you love” as a hobby. While there is nothing wrong with hobbies, but there is something vaguely dirty about the way it gets thrown around in these instances. Every few people seem to be espousing the need for a cross-section between “bliss” and practicality.
Everyone has things they love doing and are passionate about. Everyone also has some kind of skill set, a talent, or at least something they’re pretty good at. The cross-section between passion and skill is where you find what works. Sarah Feingold, the in-house attorney for Etsy, is an example of someone working in such a cross-section.
“I’m a jeweler, so I’m an artist myself. I’ve been making jewelry since I was twelve. I even took graduate-level metalworking classes when I was in law school. I always wanted to be an attorney for artists … So after I graduated law school, I was working at a firm and selling my jewelry on Etsy. I came to realize that Etsy didn’t have an in-house attorney, so I contacted the company and basically asked them to hire me. I flew myself down from Rochester, where I was living, to New York City for an interview, and they hired me on the spot. That was over five years ago.” (From an interview with Hilde Brandt Blog)
Passion: Jewelry. Skill set: Law. While the ‘follow your bliss’ method probably would have directed Sarah to give it all up and craft on Etsy, and working for a law firm seems like the ‘practical’ thing to do, the cross-section is a niche that brings with it the best of both worlds.
Between my own New Age Hippie Parents who never quite seemed to know what they were doing and artist friends constantly being ask how they plan to support themselves or relinquishing their passions to ‘hobbies’ before they’re even 25, I’m a little tired of the happy or successful dichotomy. It’s true that not everyone can be a full-time author or a broadway actor or a sought after clothing designer, but it’s also true that not everyone can be a doctor or lawyer or CEO. I would venture that there are probably as many kids who want to be doctors that won’t “make it” as there are kids who want to be artists. To truly excel at either requires commitment, passion, skill, and (as with any thing) a little luck. In that case, instead of championing the “practical,” why aren’t people championing doing what works?
You can usually spot an idea born out of passion and skill because they’re successfully out of the ordinary. An example I recently came across is the California company Shelter Co.
“Shelter Co. Is a pop up lodging service catering to groups looking for an overnight outdoor experience … Shelter Co. provides fully furnished European style canvas tents and all necessary amenities for group camping trips, weddings, family reunions, corporate retreats, and music festivals … Depending on your unique needs, we can provide everything from furnished tents and restrooms to full service catering and activities. Your guests are able to enjoy a unique experience in even the most far flung locations with all the comforts of home.”
I encourage you to check out their website, because it’s just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s clear from even a cursory glance that Shelter Co. Was not started by people who, with no experience or knowledge, woke up one morning and said, “I like camping. I should start a camping event company.” As a look at the ‘shelter crew’ shows, the company was born from backgrounds in construction and event planning paired with a love for camping.
Cross-sections don’t always mean starting weird (but awesome) businesses like Shelter Co., they can mean the difference between a med student becoming a surgeon or a pediatrician. That choice alone can be how a cross-section is found, and sometimes it can lead to other areas we might never have considered. In this case, to being a pediatric surgeon, or maybe even stepping into the fringe and becoming the author of picture books about surgery (I can see it now “Understanding Daddy’s Triple Bypass Surgery”). What matters is not how ‘inventive’ or unusual the cross-section is (although in some cases that might be a benefit), it’s finding the thing that works for you.
Perhaps I’m leaning a little too heavily on the “If You Build It They Will Come” philosophy, but I honestly believe that when skill meets passion, good results follow. Not always immediately and not always in the way expected, but I think they follow none the less. In my experience, people are usually good at (and passionate about) more than one thing, and finding what works is not an exact science. Maybe it’s a delusional luxury to advocate the kind of trial and error that comes with finding the right combination of things, the right cross-section, but is it any more delusional than the idea that just loving something is enough or that doing something you don’t really care about is in your best interest?
If professions were decided and businesses started based on the niches and cross-sections of individuals, I’d venture the entire landscape of the job market would be different. When people do what they love and what they’re good at you get the best doctors, the best teachers, the most inventive businesses. Moreover, when you get rid of the one-size-fits-all way of doing things, you move away from over saturated job markets filled with thousands of fishing trying to swim up stream. Or, to use a more apt metaphor, thousands of fishing trying to climb a tree.