Unfortunately, for many of us, our passions don’t lead us on careers that can easily lead to big bucks. You might have a passion for writing, acting, or gardening. How are you ever going to make money doing that?

I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it. — Jonathan Winters

Think about the top of your ideal profession

No matter what profession you pick, think about the individuals who have made it to the pinnacle of that profession. Are they poor?

Let’s examine a few professions that most people think are doomed to poverty, and let’s see how those who pursued them to the top fared. These are professions that your parents would probably tell you not to pursue because “You’ll never make any money that way!” Let’s see what a few rebellious kids (or some with encouraging parents) did with their lives:

A profession and what people might think about trying to make a living pursuing it

Individuals who have hit the pinnacle of that profession and the rough lives they live

Music. Can you imagine telling your parents (or spouse) that you wanted to pursue a music career? It’s filled with people living hand to mouth right? How can you ever make money doing that?

▪ Michael Jackson made (and spent) a few billion dollars.

▪ Yo-Yo Ma brings home the bacon.

▪ Even folk singers make decent money, like Tracy Chapman.

▪ Pavarotti was a multimillionaire who sang and ate all day long.

Sports. You love to play basketball, but can you make a living off it?

▪ Michael Jordan did.

▪ Tiger Woods has been pursing his passion before he learned to walk, and he’s worth tens of millions.

▪ Phil Jackson coaches basketball teams and makes money to prove it.

▪ John Madden goes “BOOM BOOM BOOM” all the way to the bank.

Painting. You wonder how well it would go over if you told your spouse that you wanted to become a painter? Talk about living in poverty, right?

▪ Picasso didn’t care. He loved to paint and did it anyway. It more than paid his bills.

▪ Monet made it through the tough times in Paris just by selling a few paintings.

Fashion industry. Here’s another winner, “Mom, I want to make dresses.” Yeah, right.

▪ Ralph Lauren didn’t do too badly.

▪ Donna Karan loved clothes and fashion ever since she could remember. She wasn’t sure if she could make a living, but that was secondary. She wanted to do what she loved.

Cooking industry. How could you convince your loving spouse that you wanted to give up your $70,000 a year job to become a chef?

▪ Wolfgang Puck maybe didn’t have a $70K job, but if he did, I’m sure he would have left it to pursue his passion. Now he can make $70,000 a month.

Writing. One way to produce a lot of chuckles in a crowd is to say you want to make a living as a writer.

▪ JK Rowling laughs all the way to bank.

▪ Danielle Steele enjoys her 55 cars and wonders if she should buy another one.

Acting. Isn’t “struggling actor” redundant? Guaranteed way to poverty.

▪ Jim Carrey makes $20 million per movie to make people laugh; is it obvious that this guy is pursuing his passion or what?

Psychology. You like to talk about people’s problems and how to resolve them? No money there, right?

▪ Oprah Winfrey is the richest female in the entertainment industry, with a net worth of over a billion dollars.

▪ Dr. Phil, her mentor, can’t be doing too badly either. “Are you gettin’ that?”

But these guys are the absolute best of their profession, and I can’t expect to do that!

You’re right. It would be irresponsible for me to suggest that you will do as well as the best have. You might, but you certainly can’t bank on it. So now what?

If you look on the chart on the next page, we remind ourselves that in any profession there is a range of income. Entry-level people make far less than the outstanding performers and/or the more experienced people. The greater your excellence, the more you make. Your excellence is a combination of experience, skill, and luck.

As you climb the Ladder of Excellence, your income rises accordingly. Those who are at the top of their profession today were not there several years ago. They were still struggling their way up.

Julia Roberts didn’t make $20 million on her first film (the obscure 1986 film called Blood Red). She made maybe only $20,000 that year. On the other hand, she didn’t jump from making $20,000 a year to $20 million either. It took four long years before she made her first hit, Pretty Woman, and she still didn’t earn much. It took her almost another ten years before she was offered eight figures. Julia journeyed up the income ladder, making more as her experience and her abilities grew. She wasn’t an overnight success.

We tend to glorify those who are at the top of the profession, and forget the rest. We start believing that either we make it big or we starve. It seems that if you want to pursue a football career, you either make $5 million a year, or you play flag football in the park. What about the people who play for the Canadian or Arena Football League? What about the backup players who make $100,000 a year? Just listen to this poor baseball player whine about his measly salary:

People think we make $3 million and $4 million a year. They don’t realize that most of us only make $500,000. — Pete Incavigila, an impoverished Texas Rangers player

So you want to be a photographer. You say it’s either poverty or millions of dollars like Ansel Adams? Aren’t there photographers who make $175,000 a year? Aren’t there some who make $80,000? Maybe a photographer who works for National Geographic makes $50,000. And maybe a junior photographer for Vogue Magazine makes $25,000. There is always an income ladder.

Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all other public and private blessings for men. — Socrates

Same goes for being the next Julia Child. Elinor Klivans spent four weeks in Paris and returned to Maine inspired. After searching for her passion using the classic tools a career counselor gave her, she concluded that she should write cookbooks. Her family chuckled. However, after eight years of pursuing her passion she’s written four cookbooks, dozens of articles, toured the country to sign books and teach cooking classes, and has been a guest on network television morning shows, along with the Food Network cable channel. Her income is not the same as Julia Child’s, but she’s not living in poverty.

In short, hiking with passion in a “tough” industry is not an all or nothing bet. It’s hard to make a living making pottery, but if you’re truly passionate about it, you will be persistent and you will eventually find a way to make decent money. If you’re lucky and/or extremely good, you’ll find a way to make lots of money. Don’t worry about money; if you’re hiking with passion, money will find you. It usually does for those who do what they love. And in the case that you don’t end up making a fortune, you will still lie on your deathbed feeling better about your life than the man who sacrificed his life so he could have a few more digits in his bank account when he died.

Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark. — Henri-Frederic Amiel


This is a modified excerpt from Chapter 3 of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. You can read the whole first chapter for free. Or you can buy the book at my shop, Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Google Books. (The best deal is at my shop). It’s also available as an audiobook.

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