If career counselors had a motto, it would be: “Do what you love! Follow your passion!”

Alas, I believe that’s risky advice. Here’s why.

Most people’s passions lie in just a few areas:

  • a creative outlet—performing, writing, or creating visual art
  • a cause—the environment, poverty, or race and gender issues
  • entertainment—broadcasting, sports, movies, video games
  • glitz—fashion, fancy cars, decorating

So, there are many applicants for jobs in those fields. Because of that, employers can and often do pay and otherwise treat employees poorly, knowing there are many people waiting in the wings to do that work, often even as a volunteer.

In contrast, if you do your passion as a hobby or sideline, it can be much easier to do what you love.

Let’s say you love acting. To try to make your living at it, you typically have to go on many auditions just to get one job—and even if you get it, the pay generally is poor. Even at the top of the theatrical heap, Broadway stages, the union minimum is only $1807 a week—and, according to Actors Equity fewer than 15 percent of dues-paying professional actors are working, on Broadway or anywhere else!

So even if you manage to defy the long odds of ever even getting cast once in a Broadway play, unless you’re the rare exception, you won’t earn even a marginally sustainable living. And even if you do regularly get cast, even in small movies and commercials, unless you’re a star, you'll spend remarkably little time acting. You'll spend most of your time waiting—waiting at rehearsals and at performances for your few minutes on stage. In a typical show, a “featured performer” is on stage less than 15 minutes.

On the other hand, if you’re a professional-level actor who pursues acting without expecting to make a living at it, you may get far better roles in local theaters. An example is Taylor Bartolucci. She contemplated going to Broadway but decided to stay in Napa, California, where she has a day job as a wine marketer. After expenses, she doesn’t even earn minimum wage from her acting but she’s gotten to star in such plays as "Funny Girl," "Spamalot," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Gypsy," "Victor/Victoria," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Kiss Me Kate," and "The Sound of Music."

She says, “I’m probably happier with my life than if I had gone to Broadway.”  

Of course, if you’re unusually talented, driven, and have great connections—ideally, all three—it may be worth trying to do what you love as a career, especially so if you give yourself a time limit. For example, decide you’ll commit the next two years to trying to make a living doing your passion. If at that point, there are signs you’ll make a living at it—for one, people are paying you decently—you may be wise to continue on. If not, you might want to cut your losses before you find yourself falling too far behind your peers to make a sustainable living in some other field.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who feel your life unquestionably will be worse if you don’t permanently pursue your passion as a career, perhaps you should do so. This article's purpose is merely to encourage you to make that decision with eyes open.

So, what, if anything, do you want to do as the result of reading this article?

Dr. Nemko's nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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