Your Passion Mission

Arranging your money-making around your soul-feeding

When I quit my job in 2011, I did so in large part to gain more control over my life so I could devote more time and energy to my writing. Contrary to what many of my readers seemed to assume at the time, the consulting was meant to sustain the writing, not the other way around. If I had stayed on the corporate track I was on, with growing managerial/leadership responsibilities, the writing would have fallen by the wayside long ago.

I suspect most people who voluntarily enter the gig economy are like me: they do so in part to gain more control over their lives so they can devote time and energy to a specific passion mission, and bring it into greater harmony with their money-making hustle. Way back in 2009, Hugh Macleod of Gaping Void called this the “Sex and Cash” theory.

“The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the assignment covers both bases, but not often.”

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Sex-and-cash theory is how adults pursue passions. The lazy, feel-good advice to young graduates to “pursue your passion” is rightly derided as entitled trustie bullshit. Typical passions are not a natural fit for the basic life challenges of survival, financial success, social success, status, or recognition.

In fact, linking a passion too directly, and too early, to those things (a particular temptation for those with clear talents related to their passions) is often a surefire way to kill it. The primary purpose of a passion is to feed your soul, not your wallet.

In the short term, passions are generally in a zero-sum relationship with survival. But in the long term, if you don’t pursue your passions at all, you won’t find life worth living, so the question of survival will become moot.

Passion as Positive Externality

The trick to pursuing your passion is engineering the right kind of coupling between the “sex” and “cash” parts of your life.

This is becoming easier thanks to vastly improved tools and products — see for instance Li Jin’s interesting posts on the passion economy and how it is changing due to a new generation of startup products. This newsletter runs on Substack for instance, which is one of these products that has improved my own sex-and-cash coupling in the last year.

But the fundamentals are not going to change anytime soon: for all but a small fraction of creators, passion and money-making will never align perfectly, and will require a thoughtfully engineered coupling to sustain. Hugh MacLeod’s point from 2009 — “Sometimes the assignment covers both bases, but not often” — remains as true in 2020.

So a passion economy as such does not exist. The passion part of life still has to emerge, for most of us, as a positive externality from the more pragmatic, money-focused activities of life. Your passion mission may have a certain amount of natural economic potential (which newer tools help realize more easily), but typically not enough to be self-sustaining.

Take a moment to identify your passion mission (if you don’t have one you should be worried): it might be a traditional creative activity like writing, music, film-making, or game design. It may or may not have a pathway to “breaking in” to the industry devoted to that activity if one exists. It might be a maker/builder project that could turn into a startup. Or not. It might simply be something like building your own log cabin in the woods with your own hands, and developing an off-grid lifestyle around it.

Don’t let apparent financial upside fool you. Just because your passion is something money-related like (say) investing and markets doesn’t mean you’ll get rich off it. A great screenwriter probably has a better shot at making it big in Hollywood than an amateurish investor has of making it big on Wall Street going up against the pros.

Whatever your passion mission, it is the raison d'être of your indie life, or even life overall. The reason you’re giving up the security and ease of the paycheck life. The activity into which you’re going to be sinking all the freedom you earn through your money-making hustles.

Passion Mission Startup Pains

Passion missions typically extend past single projects (like writing a single book or screenplay, or completing a single hardware hacking project). They are activity streams you want to sustain indefinitely, whether or not they turn out to be financially self-sustaining. Which means you need a system.

The first thing that happens when you go indie is that your existing systems around your passion mission get shot to pieces. Your passion mission will almost certainly temporarily fall by the wayside, as you scramble to get better systems in place to navigate the much more volatile world of free agent money-making.

The transient pains will make you second guess yourself: did you in fact do the right thing? Did you end up sacrificing your passion mission while foolishly imagining you were making more room for it?

The second-guessing and doubts are justified, because indeed, that can happen. For hobbyist levels of creative ambition, a steady paycheck job that you’re not too ambitious about, with free evenings and weekends, is a much better setup.

But if you’re serious, and want to take your passion mission places, the indie life situation is definitely a far better environment for it, once you do the things necessary to make it work. It won’t happen magically.

The making-it-work goes both ways. The passion mission has to inject soul into the money-making activity, and the money-making activity has to be artfully arranged around the core creative disciplines of the passion mission. Either both are sustainable long-term, or neither is.

And you heard that right: you arrange the money-making around the passion work, not the other way around. You try to reserve your most alert and creative days and hours for the passion work. The passion work sets the constraints within which the money making has to work out.

In the beginning this is hard. A “weekends and evenings” hobby in an easy 9-5 job of 40 hours a week easily amounts to about 16 hours a week (say ~1-2 hours every weekday evening, 8 hours on the weekend). You can get a lot done in that kind of time. I did the first few years of my blogging this way.

When you are starting up on the other hand, everything gets in the way. When you’re not hustling hard to make money, you’re doing more household chores because you have less cash. Plus there’s the general background anxiety. So in the first year or so, your passion-mission time availability might plummet to just a few hours a week, and they won’t be high quality. Even if you saved up a lot of launch money, the anxiety of the runway eventually running out will contaminate the freedom to work on your passion mission. Passion missions are best fed with sustainable time and money surpluses, not by drawing down savings.

But slowly, as you stabilize in your new life, you’ll reach a new equilibrium where you can spend a lot more time, in terms of both quality and quantity, on your passion mission. The passion mission can become your actual job. Writing for me today is a 9-5 weekday thing, not an evenings-and-weekends thing.

I’ll be exploring passion missions more in the next few weeks. Not least because I myself am in the process of seriously rebalancing my sex-and-cash portfolio to take advantage of the great new capabilities available today.

Take a moment to share yours in the comments or via email if you like, and post any questions you might want me to address. I can’t promise to address them, but I’ll try. Here are some of my own starter questions I’m thinking through right now:

  1. How do you sustain a “shipping” discipline around your passion mission?

  2. What is the difference between a hobby and a passion mission?

  3. How do you model and engineer the coupling to money-making?

  4. What kind of ambitions should you harbor for your passion mission?

  5. Is there an ideal sex/cash balance, and if so, how do you get there?

  6. How does the balance evolve over time?

  7. What is the deeper yin-yang coupling between the two?