I recently read quite an interesting article about the trap of turning hobbies into hustles. As someone who has turned several hobbies into businesses over the years, I can identify with quite a lot of the sentiment in the article. However, I do think that there are healthy ways to do this, and since there are many people involved with the HEMA community who do consider turning their passion into a business, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the matter.
First of all, you should probably go and read the original article, to give some introduction and context to the ideas that will follow here.
On the whole, I think it is a fairly good article. I am going to use the term “paid work” instead of “job”, “business”, or “hustle”, because I think there is quite a lot of scope for getting paid for your skills or knowledge without necessarily having to turn it into a fully-fledged business or career. That being said, whenever you do earn income (at least in the UK), you do need to declare it for taxes. Not doing so is probably illegal in most countries, and I do encourage people in the HEMA community to be ethical and legal in their business dealings.
I think there are two sides to the issue of turning hobbies into paid work. On the one hand, if you do have skills that people are willing to pay for, this can be a good route into paid work, whether it be long-term or occasional. On the other hand, as people, we need “time off” to be “financially unproductive” for us to be relaxed, balanced, and healthy.
All too often, people think that the only way to “get a good job” is to study at university and then to gain employment in someone else’s business as just one more small cog in some big machine. The alternative often seems to be just “getting a job”, by finding anything at all, where someone pays you to do something backbreaking and meaningless, as an even smaller cog in the machine.
Instead, it can be quite a viable route into paid work to have (or to develop) some practical skills and to learn how to make them marketable and how to be paid for them. This can also be quite an interesting thing to do, and it can lead to improvements in how we understand life and business across the world; by turning skills into work we have to learn the hows and whys of life and law, and this can cause us to change how we see the world. Making your skills or knowledge marketable, and then marketing them to make some income, might be a side-hustle or it might become your primary employment and income.
That being said… If we do too much of anything, we suffer for it. There needs to be “downtime” where we can do whatever we want without the need to be “productive” (financially or otherwise). We need to be able to “slack off” a bit without feeling bad so that we can rest and recuperate, we need to be able to branch out and look at things that are not directly concerned with our main employment so that we can broaden our minds and gain new ideas. When you turn your passion into paid work, taking “time off” seems incredibly difficult to do!
Doing it for others or for yourself
I like to differentiate between the HEMA I do for others (paid work, teaching, etc.) and the HEMA I do for me (to make art with motion, purely for the fun of it, without expecting any income from it). The first I do as my work, the second I do for relaxation, art, and happiness.
The same set of skills can be used both for paid work and for happiness or art. I find that the trick is working out how to differentiate the activities in your head so that you engage yourself “properly” for the activity you are currently doing (be it paid work or art for the fun of it).
We don’t need to monetise everything we do (or that we can do). We can definitely just do stuff for the fun of it and nothing more.
However, if we already possess skills, and can use those skills for paid work, then we shouldn’t feel bad about choosing to do so – as long as we stay on top of it and don’t turn everything into paid work, because we still need downtime and relaxation.
The other skills we need
It is often incredibly difficult for people with a skill of some description to be able to set up a sustainable business with that skill. There are so many other skills that are required for setting up and running a business, not least of which include counting and accounting (because numbers are important to business), reading and writing to a high standard (to be able to communicate effectively), how to be organised (because people who are disorganised or who can’t communicate well will quickly find their business tanking!), forwarding thinking, being able to use some form of social media, being able to talk to people comfortably, and so on.
Someone with a high level of skill at something marketable (be it painting, or blacksmithing, or playing guitar, or teaching HEMA, or knowing how to make yourself stronger in the gym, or whatever) may still struggle with all the other business skills. I think it is probably this, more than many other things, that quickly makes people regret turning a hobby into a business.
However, if you already have many of these skills, then there’s nothing wrong with bringing them to bear on your “headline” skill to make a sustainable business. That’s not “cheating” or “selling out”, it’s just being sensible if you want to go into business with your skill.
Deciding not to apply business skills
By the same token, there’s nothing wrong with having all of these business skills and choosing not to bring them to bear on a potentially marketable skill.
For example, I have been learning all these business skills over the last ten years or so, and I also know how to play the flute. I know what I would need to do to turn my flute playing into a side gig to earn a bit more money… But I don’t want to. So I am deliberately withholding my business skills from my musical skills, and that lets me keep music as an “art” or hobby, for relaxation or just for my own amusement. I am not letting it become a business.
I know other HEMA instructors who have thought about going semi-professional with HEMA, but then decided not to, because they preferred the idea of keeping it as something they do for themselves and not for business. Also, I know some instructors could not be bothered dealing with all the tax implications and business paperwork for doing HEMA professionally, and decided to keep it as a hobby instead of turning it into a business.
Using a skill for paid work and for art
Taking that thought a little further, I do think it is possible to take a skill and turn it into paid work, but also to keep it for relaxation.
For something like blacksmithing, tailoring, or any other such craft, you don’t need to turn your whole skillset into paid work. You can run the “bread and butter” parts of your craft as paid work, to make the income and pay the bills, and keep your more advanced or less marketable parts of the craft for personal enjoyment and personal art.
Many craftsmen get bored with doing the basics over and over, and experience the frustration of never being able to do (for paid work) the more advanced or interesting things that you really want to do yourself. By categorising the skill into what you do for paid work and what you do for fun, it becomes clear that the bread and butter stuff isn’t really what you do for fun anyway, so why not turn that skill into money? And since doing things for money is rarely as much fun as doing them for the sheer joy of it, why not keep the more fun elements of your skill to be what you do for your own enjoyment?
Suddenly, things become much neater in the head, and the same skillset can still support both paid work and relaxation / art / fun, without any of the stress of cross-over or any of the guilt that you should be monetising every single thing you do with that skill.
With that division, you can then choose whether or not to apply your other business skills to any project or activity. Maybe you just want to make a thing, and you don’t really want to do it as paid work; just do it, for the fun of it, no need to make a project proposal or try to make it so that it is sellable. Maybe you need money, so do what is most likely to make you the money you need so that you can keep living and keep making art for your own enjoyment.
However, if you want to take your skills (that you are justifiably proud of) and make some paid work out of them, then you know that you have to bring your business skills to bear on that project so that it doesn’t fail. Failure sucks at the best of times, but failure with a skillset you are proud to have is a more painful thing. Recognising what parts of your skill are being done for business, and bringing business skills to support them, leads to more success with turning that skill into paid work, and avoiding the pain and discomfort of failure.
Failure so often comes with we don’t understand what we are doing. Therefore, gaining a better understanding of what we are doing in our paid work and our relaxation means that we can be more successful at both endeavours, which can only be good both for the wallet and for the body and mind.
It has taken me more than a decade of teaching martial arts, and maybe fourteen years of buying and selling in general, to be able to work this out and to be able to discuss it all in this fashion. It is not necessarily easy to come to think this way.
We must also acknowledge that becoming self-employed is not possible for everyone, even for those with marketable skills. Do you have enough finances to set up? Do you have a safety net? Can you afford (in all sense of the word) to take the plunge? Some people are just luckier in life and have a better head start at creating a business, and other people constantly need to play catch-up. When we have the good fortune to be able to turn down paid work and create art just for our own fulfilment, that is a great situation to be in!
For many people, being able to make a little bit more money by turning a skill into paid work can make a huge and positive impact on their lives. It certainly did for me. We should not demonise people turning their skills into paid work.
By the same token, it is all too easy to turn a hobby into paid work in this fashion, and then to let it consume you. Again, speaking from experience! Learning to step back, calm down, and be in control of it so that you remain healthy in life is important. That is a skill that you need to develop, along with accounting, communication, forward planning, etc.
Have you turned a skill into paid work? If so, how do you keep life balanced and healthy? Do you have anything to add to this discussion?
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Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.