We have all heard this at least 87 times:

Do what you love. Follow your passion, your obsession, your enduring interest. When you’re passionate, your work is a joy.

Plus, you will work harder and longer and with energy. You will build your skills and know-how.

You will land more work and have even more fun, and more money. Your career will have meaning.

I love the melody and symmetry of that advice. It sounds so seductive and comforting and right. I have caught myself chanting that to new freelancers, to my kids, and in my posts here. And even to myself.

But it’s wrong.  ‘Follow your passion’ is lousy advice for us freelancers.

(Of course, if that path has worked for you, then ignore me and press on. You are lucky and a bit rare. Pay no attention to anyone from now on. Now, go.)

For most of us, though, it’s an iffy way to shape a freelance career in our chosen craft.

I have rarely seen it lead to happier work. And it almost never leads to a better business model.

Mainly because the idea is backwards.

All the successful freelancers I know did it the other way ’round.

Too superficial

One problem is, it’s easy to take that ‘passion’ advice too literally. We try to work our hobby or personal interest into the freelance business. Or we gravitate toward work that is fun or exotic or looks fascinating from outside the window.  

A designer friend of mine was fanatically obsessed with golf. So he decided to pursue clients who made golf clubs, golf courses, golf videos. A perfect match, right?

Except that those golf clients didn’t talk golf. They talked about marketing and web sites, and design problems just like all his other clients. My friend’s interest in golf only got in the way. And he found that tweaking 3D CAD images of a titanium golf club all day is not like playing golf.

It wasn’t more satisfying than his other work. And the money wasn’t any better.

Or perhaps you feel frustrated translating utterly unsexy documents for banks and corporations. But, you have been passionate about movies since childhood. So you wiggle your way into meeting an independent film producer, and get yourself hired to do the German subtitles for his latest release. Now you’re translating for the cinema.

Maybe you love it, and will now do subtitles forever. Or maybe you find that watching the same scenes over and over and over for ten days makes you want to rend your garments in agony. It is not like watching movies at all. And maybe producers pay much less than banks and stand over your shoulder all day.

I’m not trying to be Mr. Buzzkill here.

It’s just that there is a nine-kilometer chasm between doing something you love, and doing something for real-world clients, for a living. For money. Sometimes the two overlap in blissful karmic harmony. Usually they don’t.

The trick is to go where we can kick ass  –  as pros — day after day, for a living. And run rings around everyone else.

Then, passion sort of happens.

Knack first, passion later

Here’s the way it actually works.

You poke around, taking on all sorts of assignments, for whatever clients you can get. (As we all do.) Some clients really suck, some don’t, most are somewhere in the middle. You do some glamor work, some grunt work, some utterly intolerable drudgery.

Somewhere in there, you do a job that particularly ‘clicks’. It feels easy. Something makes sense. Almost like déja vu. As if you had done this in a past life.

Or maybe you just, inexplicably, like it. (Who knew?) Suddenly you’re interested.

Or you do a job that a client fairly gushes over. “Brilliant,” they say. (You have no idea what they’re talking about.) They want you to do it again. And again. They tell their friends. Now, you’re sort of in demand. You like that.

Or, because you need the money, you take on like nine assignments in a row that force you to learn all about .php, or radiology equipment, or commercial insurance. Hmm. Now you’re a budding ‘expert’. You know more than the average freelancer.

My friend Bill ended up winning an Emmy for soundtrack design. Only because, almost by accident, he discovered he was good at sound and music editing. And clients kept calling. Ergo, a passion, and a business.

What happens too, is that you find your ‘passion’ is a bit abstract. You are ingenious at cutting through the crap and simplifying. Or you love dealing with scientists, or lawyers, or start-up entrepreneurs. Or you can make even the most recalcitrant clients like you. That is a business right there.

Or, you find that, since you were an incurable slacker in school, and always left studying till the last minute, you developed the dubious ability to cram through a pile of material at high speed, and the next day, to sound almost like you know what you’re talking about. That’s how I ended up making a living writing stuff for technology clients.

Go with what you’re good at. Go with what clients keep asking for. You’ll get passionate about it. Or at least not hate it.  And you’ll have a good business there.

I was hoping to make this post shorter and tighter. But it sort of scampered away from me a few paragraphs in.