Dalat, Vietnam 2016

Should I Follow My Passion For a Living?

Dalat, Vietnam 2016
Dalat, Vietnam 2016

I remember when I was growing up — and was wondering whether I should follow my passion for a living or not.

I want this letter to be an opportunity for me to share some of my personal thoughts, experiences, and ideas with you. This advice probably won’t apply to you, but I hope it will give you some personal insights.

What did I do?

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Okay, to start off— in my experience, I followed my passion, and I was very lucky to be able to make it into a living.

I am the hyper-optimist, but also realist at the same time.

I know that the harder you work, the more you self-educate yourself, and the more you hustle— the likelier your chances of success.

But at the same time, you need a lot of luck as well. Luck includes timing (when you decide to start your business, or follow your passion), as well as environmental factors (the culture in which you were raised, social pressures), and your position in life (whether you are single, married, in school, etc).

Let me share some of my personal history:

From a young age, I was always taught that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve whatever I wanted. Part of this came from the fact that I was raised Asian (Asians enforce strong work ethics) and also the fact that I was raised American (the ‘American dream’ says if you work hard enough, you can climb the social ladder). Therefore the cultural environment was pretty ideal for me to become an entrepreneur, and pursue my passion.

Not only that, but I grew up pretty poor. I never went to bed hungry, but I was always worried whether my mom would be able to pay the rent at the end of the month. My mom filed bankruptcy, had horrible credit, was always borrowing money from her friends and family, and we were barely scraping by. I remember a few deep discussions with my mom (from age 12-15) that she told me that we might be homeless or perhaps go to a shelter— so to be prepared.

Therefore I knew that nothing in life would be handed to me on a silver platter. I knew that if I wanted to make something out of myself, I needed to hustle. Hard. I had a deep conviction in my heart that my destiny was in my hands.

Growing up, I wasn’t always 100% sure what my passion was. But I knew it was at the intersection of sharing information and knowledge (I wrote a lot of video game guides that I gave away for free growing up), I had a passion for blogging (started doing it for fun when I was around 15 years old), and the internet (I was addicted to the web since I was around 12, when I got my first computer). I also loved to tinker (build computers, tear them apart, and modify my car).

But most of all, I loved to teach. Teaching was my passion. I taught a lot of my fellow friends, I tutored to make some side-money, I was the leader of my Boy Scouts troop, I was a student intern at a local Korean-American community center, and I had a passion to guide and lead. I always had a hard time understanding and learning as a kid growing up (nobody ever taught me in a simple way), and I wanted to help teach others who were also confused like myself. As a side note, I also think I have mild dyslexia.

But teaching was never in the cards for a career. I was always taught that being a teacher would lead to no job prospects, poverty, and no money. A ‘better’ career was becoming a doctor, lawyer, or something else that made a lot of money. Money (in Korean culture) is seen as tied in with success.

Of course I thought this was bullshit, so I rebelled. I followed what I was interested in. Even though I went in as a Biology major in college (to appease my family and become a doctor like my grandfather), I hated it after my first quarter, and switched immediately to whatever had the least amount of science and math (ended up being Sociology).

Sociology was my light. It helped me uncover all these manmade ‘social rules’ — which I always smelled was fishy. Ever since I was young, I knew that having a ton of money didn’t make you happy. I knew that being poor made you miserable, but once you had enough money to live — having additional wealth only added more misery. As the rapper Biggie Smalls says, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

Balancing pragmatism

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I knew that my passion was teaching, sharing information, and somehow along the line photography also became a passion.

While I was interested in following my passion (studying Sociology), I knew that just doing my passion directly wouldn’t help me pay the bills. I knew that I needed a backup option.

Social media interested me at an early age. It lead me to teaching a Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks course at UCLA (see the syllabus here). I intuitively knew that if I wanted a job that could make a living, I should probably go into social media marketing. I knew I could “brand” myself and “market” myself well — as being a sociologist, who understood group behavior, and also how to market a message to a digital audience.

So in reality, while I did follow my passion — I had a backup. I figured out how to make my passion into a hybrid of something that was practical. That was combining sociology and marketing. That was combining social media, marketing, branding, advertising, and sociology.

Getting a full-time job

I interned at a company called Demand Media, for eHow.com. I interned as a social media intern (thanks to Cindy for helping me get it), which eventually lead to a full-time job out of college.

I learned a lot at my job in the first year and during the internship. I had a lot of great guides, mentors, and I was given a lot of freedom to experiment, and tinker. I learned all these social media marketing strategies, through trial-and-error, and also reading some current literature.

Around the same time, I started this blog. I had a passion for street photography (didn’t think I could make a living from it), but I wanted to share my information. I therefore took learning lessons from my full-time job, applied it to my blog. Whatever
I learned from blogging and social media, I also applied it to my job. I “cross-pollinated” between my passion and my 9-5 job.

When did I want to make the switch?

To be honest, I loved my old 9-5 job. I loved my co-workers, bosses, and the environment in which I was in.

The problem was that after about a year of being there, I felt stuck. I was no longer growing. I had massive ambition, but bureaucracy started to creep in. The company IPO’d, and I no longer had the freedom that I craved.

Therefore for a while, I was planning my escape plan. I had no idea how I could make my passion a living (street photography). But I kept blogging, building connections, and being active on social media.

The biggest break I got was being laid off. The company I was working for laid off half the company. They did the job for me.

And thank God they did, otherwise I would still be there. Because in reality, I wouldn’t have the balls to quit my job. I always thought I needed to save more money. I always thought that I didn’t have enough experience.

But once I lost my job, I felt free. I remember vividly biking home, and feeling this sense of euphoria, and joy. I knew that this was my sign from God, to finally pursue my passion (full-time). And I’ve been lucky. Since 2011 to 2016, I’ve followed my passion and made it a living for around 5-6 years.

The formula for making your passion your living

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In life there are no formulas. But this is the formula I ended up following:

  1. Pursue my passion in school: Study Sociology, which I was far more interested in than Biology. I knew that I didn’t want to go into medicine, go to medical school, and end up being a doctor. I knew I would make a lot of money as a doctor, but I would be miserable.
  2. Set myself up to get a “real” job: Interning at a digital media company, being a social media intern, and hustling hard to get a steady-paying 9-5 job after I graduated school.
  3. Do my passion on the side, while having a full-time job: To build up my passion and my own business, knowing that one day I wanted to jump ship from my job, to working for myself.
  4. Hustling hard: Writing 3x blog posts a week, being active on social media, building connections.
  5. Taking a risk: When I got laid off, I could have easily got another 9-5 social media job. But I knew that this was my chance to take a risk, and my maximum downside was to move back in with my mom, which wasn’t a horrible plan.

For me, this was a good plan for several reasons:

First of all, I covered my bases. I knew I could pay my rent, and make a living by having a steady 9-5 job. By not worrying about paying my expenses, I was able to dedicate my (spare) time to 100% building up my passion.

Secondly, I learned a lot about business and working with others at my 9-5 job. I learned how to send “proper” emails, I learned how digital companies worked, and I learned a lot from my bosses, mentors, and guides at the company. I got introduced to a lot of contemporary literature on social media, marketing, and branding.

What would I do differently if I could do it all over again?

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My only regret is not studying computer science and programming. Honestly, the trend to the future is going to be software, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), automation, smartphones, machine-learning, dynamic self-training algorithms, self-driving cars, etc.

If I could give my 18-year old self advice: it would be follow your passion (sociology) but double-up on computer science.

I’m glad that I ended up getting a stable job, and pursuing my passion on the side. This reduces your maximum downside, and is a less risky strategy.

My advice to you

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If you’re 18, 28, 38, 48, 58, 68, or 78 — my ultimate advice for you is this: you don’t need to make your passion your living. Just make sure that your job doesn’t prevent you from following your passion.

Einstein created the theory of relativity while working a boring 9-5 job at the Swiss patent office. Henry Ford started off his experiments making his car while working for another company. Elon Musk worked menial jobs when he first came to America. Steve Jobs worked at Atari, while building up Apple.

But ultimately, the most important thing is to do what you love. To make sure you can partake in your passion at least once everyday.

If your passion is photography, take photos everyday. Study photography. Learn photography. Make simple photos of your friends, family, and loved ones. Take photos on your smartphone during your commute. If you’re stuck in traffic, listen to photography podcasts. If you are bored at work, study great photographers. Don’t waste extra time staying late at the office— use your precious time after work to take photos. Take 15 minutes to snap photos around your office at lunch time. Devote your entire weekends to doing your passion.

If your passion is blogging, reading, or writing— find every opportunity to do so. For me personally, I blogged before work, by waking up early in the morning. I was lucky to have a tech job (work started at around 10am-10:30am), so I could get a good hour of blogging in before work (7:30am-8:30am) before I biked to work.

The biggest deterrent to following your passion: distractions. Kill them. Be ruthless. I see distractions as social media, as senseless blogs, and sensationalist websites. I see distractions as passive entertainment (TV, Netflix, and mindless video games). Anything that disempowers you, rather than empowers you, is a distraction. Anything that causes your smartphone to buzz, and distract you, is taking precious mental energy and time away from following your passion.

But I really want to make my passion my living

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Portrait by Benjamin Thompson

If you are crazy enough to follow your passion, start off with these guides:

  1. How to Do What You Love for a Living
  2. How to Create an MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
  3. How to Be Bold in Photography and Life

Then when you’re done with those guides, you can read the articles below:

Entrepreneurial Principles

How to be a Full-time Photographer

How to Start a Blog

How to Teach Photography

Social Media

To learn more, you can see all entrepreneurship articles >

I believe in you

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Be strong, be confident, and be brave. Being an entrepreneur isn’t about making a ton of money. It is loving risk, to follow your passion, and to have guts. If you follow your passion, your probability of failing is high. So prepare for the worst-case scenario, but always remind yourself that life is short.

Don’t do what you hate for a living. Work hard, hustle, and try to (eventually) aim to make your passion your living.


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