ast year, at a friend’s wedding, I sat across from the perfect dress. Rendered in a warm, dusky orange and a just-revealing-enough neckline, it hugged every curve of the cousin of the groom as we chatted. When I mentioned it, she beamed. “Thanks, it has pockets!” she replied, because of course it did. And something about the way she touched the hem made me ask if she made it, and if she was beaming before, now she was radiant: “Yes!” she replied.
“Wow!” I said. “It’s gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop or…?” And suddenly, it was like all the light went out of the room. She looked down despairingly. “No,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me I should, but I just wouldn’t know where to start.” I recognized the look of a woman suddenly overwhelmed by people’s expectations of her.
“You don’t have to,” I assured her. “You can do something you love, just because you love it.” (When did I become Ask Polly?) And suddenly the sentence that both of us needed to hear came out of my mouth: “You don’t have to monetize your joy.”
When I was a kid, I often heard the phrase, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Like many millennials — who are now of course accused of wanting too much in terms of job satisfaction and security — I was encouraged to view any of my interests or talents as a possible career. This framework has carried through to adulthood, but now, instead of conjuring a Richard Scarry-esque image of happily occupying my time doing things I love, it reinforces the idea that my attention belongs more rightfully on profit than on pleasure.
We live in the era of the hustle. Of following our dreams until the end, and then pushing ourselves more. And every time we feel beholden to capitalize on the rare places where our skills and our joy intersect, we underline the idea that financial gain is the ultimate pursuit. If we’re good at it, we should sell it. If we’re good at it and we love it, we should definitely sell it.
This seems to ring especially true in creative fields, where these days selling art is less likely to be considered “selling out” than self-actualization. But even those who are commercially successful in creative fields often lament the disconnect between what it is like to do their jobs and how society views their life and work. Adam J. Kurtz, author of Things Are What You Make of Them has rewritten the maxim for modern creatives: “Do what you love and you’ll
never work a day in your life work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.” Which, aside from being relatable to anyone who has tried to make money from something they truly care about, speaks to an underrepresented truth: those with passion careers can have just as much career anxiety as those who clock in and out of the mindless daily grind.
I have a friend who is living her dream. She makes and sells leather pocket belts, holsters and ruffle tops for the steampunk/Renaissance Faire/Burning Man crowd. Her designs are worn and enjoyed by thousands of people; she’s created more jobs for Bay Area artists; she’s her own boss — and she hasn’t taken a real day off in roughly eight years. Because that’s what it takes to do what she loves. I admire the hell out of her, but every time I’m tempted to listen to someone who says I should open a restaurant just because I throw a good dinner party, I think of her, and remember that admiration is not the same as envy.
That’s not to say there isn’t joy to be found in turning something you love into your life’s work — it’s just to say that it’s okay to love a hobby the same way you’d love a pet; for its ability to enrich your life without any expectation that it will help you pay the rent. What would it look like if monetizing a hobby was downgraded from the ultimate path to one path? What if we allowed ourselves to devote our time and attention to something just because it makes us happy? Or, better yet, because it enables us to truly recharge instead of carving our time into smaller and smaller pieces for someone else’s benefit?
It’s no surprise we feel pressure to monetize our spare time. The cult of busyness is one of the most toxic aspects of our culture, but it’s also a defense mechanism. When so many of us are suffering economic hardship as we struggle to put our education and potential to use amid the five-alarm fires of climate change and political turmoil, it’s easier to keep going and glorify the struggle than it is to sit and risk feeling helpless. (Or risk feeling, if we’re being honest.) It’s easier to stomach needing three jobs to make ends meet if we rebrand ourselves as hustlers. So we pour ourselves another cup of coffee, post an inspirational meme and abide by the national motto of Rise and Grind, ever on the search for a new “hack” that will help us get more done in less time. But if we choose to capitalize on all of our resources, when do we get to choose ourselves?
Whenever I have some time to myself, I panic. Unstructured time — especially spent alone — is phenomenally rare in my life and I feel an overwhelming obligation to make good use of it. I should get some laundry done. Meal prep. Ask each item in my dresser if it brings me joy. Figure out how to fold a fitted sheet. Paint my nails. Work on the play I’m writing. Do a face mask. But instead, I deal with my option paralysis in the least helpful way possible: by scrolling through my phone alone in the dark until I run out of battery (literally or figuratively) and put myself to bed feeling like I’ve lost something valuable and hating myself for it. I can’t be productive, and I can’t fully relax, and I can’t possibly be alone in this.
How did we get to the point where free time is so full of things we have to do that there’s no room for things we get to do? When did a beautiful handmade dress become a reminder of one’s inadequacies? Would the world really fall apart if, when I came home from a long day of work, instead of trying to figure out what I could conquer, I sat down and, I don’t know, tried my hand at watercolors? What if I sucked? What if it didn’t matter? What if that’s not the point?
We don’t have to monetize or optimize or organize our joy. Hobbies don’t have to be imbued with a purpose beyond our own enjoyment of them. They, alone, can be enough.
Molly Conway is a playwright and writer living in Oakland, California. You can follow her on Instagram @moxiequinn for periodic updates about her garden and Frambly Dinner. She has yet to finish a cup of tea while it is still hot.
Photo by Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.