The Perils of a Perfect Life

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

– Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time

I did a bit of a disservice to Joe Tolstoy on Monday, only answering part of his question. Sure, I explained that writing other people’s words for other people’s purposes would be spinning my wheels right now, but he also asked the classic question: How do you turn your passion into something that can also sustain you in everyday life? Sure, it’s great to spend hours becoming the world’s foremost expert on 18th century postage stamps, but can you also make a living at it?

I’ll be honest: I don’t know. I hope so, on general principles that I’ll get into later. First, though, I have to caution you: maybe you shouldn’t.

Burn Out & Fade Away

A long time ago I did an exercise from Barbara Sher’s book I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. It’s been mirrored many places, and basically it’s simply this: write down your perfect day. From the moment you wake until the moment you go back to sleep, what do you imagine your perfect day would be like?

My imagination went wild. My perfect day, I thought, would start with T’ai Chi next to a burbling brook in the early morning sunlight. It would include playing with my kids, stimulating conversations with my brilliant friends, dance rehearsals, a healthy and delicious lunch, and hours of uninterrupted quality writing time. I even threw in some romantic sexy time with my then-wife to end the idyllic day. By the time I was done with the writing exercise I was chuckling at how naive, absurd, and unrealistic it was.

A few years later it happened. I hadn’t planned on it, but at the end of the day I was laying there in my wife’s arms, happy, sated, going over the events of the day and realizing: I’d done it. I’d had the Perfect Day I’d imagined.

And I was utterly exhausted. Totally wiped out. Too many more perfect days, I realized, would wreck me. I sincerely hoped the following day would be somewhat imperfect. Thankfully, it was, as were many following.

Life Support System

Aside from exhaustion, another danger of doing what you love for your life is that prolonged exposure will make you love it less. How much of your passion for a particular thing is predicated on the fact that you have limited exposure to it? It applies to relationships of all kinds, of course, but whether love or work it is no fun to realize “the magic is gone.”

There’s also the question of whether doing it for money will reduce your pleasure. Contrary to popular logic, when people are paid for some altruistic act they get less satisfaction than if they’d been allowed to volunteer their efforts. Daniel Pink talks about this in his book Drive, or sums up in this cool RSA Animate video:

So consider this fair warning: if you choose to follow what you love, both you and that which you love may change.

So if you catch yourself working hard and loving every minute of it, don’t stop. You’re on to something big. Because hard work ain’t hard when you concentrate on your passions.
Disorderly Beautiful Chaos
(warning: this blog contains nudity along with many beautiful ideas)

But let’s say you are certain that it is possible to be a happy and well-fed numismatist. How do you go about it?

First, I’ll tell you what the experts say. You already caught that link to Barbara Sher, right?

  • Gary Vaynerchuk will let you know that sharing your passion with your authentic voice is the key. In Crush It! he lays out exactly how he (and others) have done it.
  • Chris Guillebeau will tell you that only $100 is needed to get you started, and has strategies to prove it. Excellent tools for recognizing and leveraging your available resources and opportunities.
  • Cheri Huber provides a manual for using Zen philosophy to get from where you are to where you want to be. Along the way she helps you identify exactly why you aren’t already doing it.
  • Steve Pavlina, who I think is a little nuts in some ways, has a quick and dirty method for figuring out exactly what your passion actually is.
  • Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art and Turning Pro, ruthlessly strips away all the excuses you have for not using all of those tools listed above. Let me warn you, these are not nice books to read. Finish watching that sitcom season first; otherwise every time you turn on the TV you’ll hear his saying Really? Is this what a pro would do?

I do not recommend Tim Feriss’ 4-Hour Work Week. Not that it’s a bad book, it’s just not about turning your passion into your work – it’s about working less, period. From what I read of it, the answer seems to be “Become independently wealthy by writing a book on how to be independently wealthy.

 The Gray Miller Method

Today, standing in line at Louisa’s I was chatting with another customer as we both drooled over the apple-cinnamon roll on display. She asked what I did. “I’m a writer,” I replied, often my answer since it’s easier than trying to explain how I really put food on the table.

“That must be a nice way to make a living,” she said, and didn’t hear my muttered “If you can call it that...” Hey, I make no bones about it: I’m a jaded cynical pragmatist at heart. But really, that’s exactly what I did: I looked at how much I could make doing what I was passionate about, and then pared away my life until it could be supported by that work. It means that some things that are essential to some people – like cable TV, a house, health insurance – are not part of my life. Other things that people might find a luxury – hacked Zebra pens, moleskine notebooks, splenda pellet dispensers – are essential to my quality of life.

I am extremely fortunate to have every minute of my work day filled with accomplishing something that I feel is important.

On the other hand, I am often very tired, and not always from the work. Sometimes it is the weariness that comes from constant financial insecurity, of a family spread far and wide and inconsistently accessible. I am lifehacking my way towards a life support system one word, sentence, idea at a time.

Thanks for coming along…

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