I don’t know if this is a new trend or if I’m just noticing it now, but more and more the popular wisdom seems to be that you shouldn’t monetize your hobby. That if you do, it turns it into a job, a hustle1; that it sucks all the fun out of it. Putting aside for now the fact that some people might want to turn their hobby into a job, monetizing a hobby seems to me to have some pretty big advantages for the rest of us, too:
It provides validation
We can talk about why it’s a bad idea to seek external validation until the heat death of the Universe, but the truth is, we all like it. If we didn’t, writers wouldn’t publish any manuscripts, painters wouldn’t exhibit any paintings, and I wouldn’t be writing this text right here. And while no one should rely on the opinion of others to prop up their own sense of self-worth, to deny that evolution has hard-wired humans to crave the acceptance, admiration, and respect of their peers is either disingenuous or simply ignorant.
There is a world of difference between your family and friends telling you how talented you are, and a stranger reaching into their wallet to pay for something you’ve created. It’s not the money itself (though there’s nothing wrong if it is), it’s what the money represents: somebody likes your work so much that they’re willing to trade their own work for it. And that feels good.
It offsets the costs
With very few exceptions, hobbies cost money. With even fewer exceptions, people can’t afford to just pour money into an activity–even one they love–without doing anything to recuperate the costs. The enjoyment one derives from a hobby is always at odds with the guilt that comes from spending money that perhaps could be put to better use, or saved for rainy days.
There’s a sort of thinly veiled condescension in telling people they shouldn’t make money off their work. The advice is often delivered in these boring, haughty platitudes, too: “You’re allowed to just enjoy the hobby”; “Not every hobby needs to make money, and that’s OKAY.” As if it’s your fault that you’re having trouble enjoying your hobby when looking at the hole it burns in your wallet2. As if you should just look at that hole and love it. For your craft.
Other times the advice is wrapped in plain old anti-capitalist sentiment. It’s modern, money-hungry society that’s pressuring you to monetize your spare time, and if you give in, you’re a hustler3, a sell-out. You can’t possibly love doing something while also making money off of it. Your two choices are starving artist, or capitalist slave.
It clears up space
This one should be obvious, but perhaps the mistake lies in assuming that hobbies only provide intangible end-products. That may be true for hobbies like writing, making videos, or doing stand-up comedy, but it sure as hell isn’t true for woodworking, bike repair, or pottery. Even people who paint miniatures will run out of space to store them all eventually, and while it might be easy to say that they could just donate the end-products or give them away to family and friends, this again ignores whether (or how long) they can afford to do so.
Let’s step back for a bit and try to dig past the bullshit and into the kernel of truth. The risk of accidentally turning a beloved hobby into a chore is real. Money is a part of that, but only in as much as it opens up some of the pitfalls that you can fall into. The solution isn’t to eliminate money, it’s to just be careful. Here are a couple of tips that might help:
Don’t make it about the money4
There is a huge difference in the amount of effort needed to offset some of the costs of your projects versus making a profit. Focusing on the money means you’ll have to produce whatever sells best, not whatever you like. It means you’ll need to take some of the precious time from your hobby and shift it to marketing and publicizing yourself and your projects. Maybe you might like doing that, and more power to you if you do, but personally I think it sucks, so I don’t do it. If you can afford to ignore some potential winnings–and I am aware how big an if that can be–focus on the hobby, and put money further down the list of priorities.
Don’t look at the time
If you’re anything like me, you have an unhealthy obsession with optimizing for time: if something can be done, it can be done faster.
Some time after I first started repairing bikes, after I’d gathered some proficiency in it, I thought it might be a good idea to write down each task and how long it takes me to accomplish it. That way, I could factor in my time in the price I would eventually sell the bikes for. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?
So, I did this for a while, and at first it was a sort of fun game I played against myself, but then at one point I caught myself hurrying along, and actually stressing about how long a repair was taking me. I was way over-budget for time. There’s no way I could include this time in the price of the bike. No one would buy it, and I’d be stuck with it!
That’s when it hit me: keeping track of time goes against the very idea of why I was doing it in the first place. Why would I even want the task done faster? Why would I try to do less of something I want to do more of?
In a professional environment, it makes total sense to measure time. Cheesy as it might sound, time is money for the professional, and when your paycheck depends on how much work you can do in a limited time span, time itself becomes a factor for optimization. But when the main reason you’re doing it is because you love doing it, time becomes the gun you shoot yourself in the foot with.
By all means, optimize for ergonomics, and against time sinks that don’t bring you joy. Buy the best, easiest to use tools you can afford, and have them within arm’s reach if you can. But don’t stress too much about trying to do everything as efficiently as possible. It’s not an assembly line, it’s a craft. Wallow in it like a pig in mud!
I love this word, because there’s no middle ground to it, is there? To some, it represents a positive can-do, balls-to-the-wall attitude towards work and lifestyle. To others, it’s sleazy, aggressive, unfettered capitalism. But it’s the same word! ↩︎
There’s that word again! ↩︎
Unless, of course, that’s what you want. There is nothing wrong or shameful in wanting to turn a hobby into a job, and you shouldn’t let any modern-day hippie tell you there is. ↩︎