How to not quit your day job and follow your dreams anyway
Becoming a better marketer through the art of the side-hustle
April 23, 2018
Far too many people are still trying to live their professional lives by a piece of wisdom from 2,500 years ago. That’s when the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius came up with his famous career advice: “find a job that you love and never have to work a day in your life.” It sounds great in principle. It rarely works in practice.
The problem is Confucius’ idea of one perfect job that will solve everything. This doesn’t exist. Any human being is multi-dimensional. It’s their unique combination of different passions that makes them who they are, not one overriding interest. We’re not all obsessive artists tunnel-focused on one thing in life. We’re complex, nuanced people with different priorities, needs and aspects of ourselves to explore.
Even if it was once something you loved, your day job can become frustrating if it obscures everything else about you. What’s more, getting paid to do something you love inevitably changes your relationship to it. What you do will always be governed by what there’s a market for – what people pay you to do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re relying on one job to deliver all of the fulfillment that you need in life then it might become one. It’s unfair on you – and it’s unfair on the business you work for.
This is why I groan inside whenever I read a blog, listen to a speaker or hear a conversation that boils down to why somebody should quit their day job and follow their dreams. That’s because the best way to explore what you can be as a person isn’t to go all-in, ditching one job for another in a desperate search for one that makes your dreams come true. It’s to explore the different aspects of yourself through the art of the side-hustle. Find a day job that you love, then find other things to work on that you love as well. It will make you much happier – and it’s likely to increase the value that you can bring to the business that pays your salary.
How the mid-life crisis hit fast-forward
As a marketer, you’re no doubt familiar with Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs. This is the idea that human beings have a hierarchy of needs that they are driven to fulfill, starting with those that are essential to staying alive, then moving up to more complex emotional and psychological matters.
For Confucius, happiness was about being able to eat, sleep, put a roof over your head and support a family as effortlessly as possible. However, that’s not the situation that most professionals find themselves in today. Once we’ve got greater security, we want a sense of love and belonging, then a sense of respect and self-esteem. Finally, we need self-actualisation: the sense that we’re actually being the people we have the potential to be; that we’re fulfilling the meaning in our lives.
And the evidence is rising that this is where professional life is falling short. We are living at a time when LinkedIn research shows more and more professionals experiencing ‘quarter-life crises’ about the lack of meaning in their working lives, while they are still in their mid 20s. People are starting to panic about feeling unfulfilled in their work when they’ve barely started working!
Self-actualisation and the side-hustle
A lot of those people feel trapped because they are still thinking of work as an all-in enterprise. Whatever you get paid for is what you do – and all that you do. If that doesn’t reflect all of your needs and motivations as an individual then you either have to suck it up or quit – and go back to worrying about how you’ll pay the bills and feed the family. It’s no wonder we’ve got a generation of young working people feeling frustrated and depressed.
The tragedy is that professional life doesn’t have to be a choice between being happy and being solvent. You just need to find an employer that appreciates the value in having well-rounded and fulfilled people working for them. We need to move beyond the concept of professional ownership, where your heart and soul belong to one business. And the good news is that there are more and more businesses interested in doing this. These are businesses that realise the benefits of having motivated employees, with an urge to grow and transform, and a constant stream of fresh perspectives to bring to what they do. They are businesses that buy into the side-hustle. I know, because I work for one of them.
Human potential isn’t a zero-sum game
That’s why I couldn’t have agreed less with a column I read in Campaign recently that complained about young advertising industry creatives wasting their time on side-hustles when they should be focusing exclusively on creating the best possible ads for clients. Now, as a marketer, I obviously want agencies doing the best possible work for me – but I don’t believe that the best possible work comes from leaving no room for anything else in their professional lives. Human potential isn’t a zero-sum game. The more you explore the different aspects of it, the more value you get from every aspect of it.
This isn’t to say that every side-hustle is a productive use of time and energy – or that doing independent work on the side automatically enhances your productivity in your day job. The side-hustle is an art in itself. It’s essential to take a committed, structured and strategic approach to how it fits with your mainstream professional life, and how it can deliver value all round.
Here’s my guide to not quitting your day job, following your dreams anyway, and feeling much happier and more productive as a result:
Work for people who respect your whole self
Seth Godin, a genuine marketing pioneer and one of my heroes, encourages people to run from any workplace that wants to make you into a replaceable cog in a machine; any employer who’s not interested in who you really are. That’s definitely my own experience. I can’t overstate how important being encouraged to bring my whole self to work has been to my time in B2B marketing. I felt that difference when I first walked into Marketo – and it’s very much been the case at LinkedIn. If you want the freedom to explore all of your potential as a professional and human being, you need a supportive employer. That’s why it’s vital to pay attention to cultural fit when picking your day job. To be an effective side-hustler, you need the right mainstream hustle.
Then find a side-hustle you are genuinely passionate about
Your side-hustle is there to help you find more meaning in your professional life – to explore aspects of you that aren’t as relevant to your mainstream job but are still important to you. That should make it a deeply personal choice. Don’t just pick up on the latest idea floating by in the zeitgeist.
My side-hustle is rock n roll concert photography – documenting gigs from the pit at the front of the stage. It reflects my lifelong passion for heavy metal music, keeps me in touch with an important part of my personality that I feared leaving behind, and gives me a hands-on form of creative expression to play with. For Ish Verduzco, the global social media marketing lead at LinkedIn Talent Solutions, it’s a parallel career as DJ Ishh, playing clubs and concerts in the California area. But side-hustles don’t have to involve music. I know of marketers developing careers as painters, copywriters who design fishing flies, video producers who are writing plays. Another marketer I know is trying to save the planet by experimenting with ways of creating sustainable fuel from horse poo. These aren’t things that most people would choose to do – but that’s just the point. Side-hustles add more to people when they are unique to them.
Be prepared to work for exposure
As a side-hustler, I embrace the freedom that comes from being able to work for free. I recognise that money isn’t the only currency worth exchanging my time for. I’m hungry for the opportunity to do something I love and, thanks to the fact that I have another source of income, I’m able to work for exposure when I need to. That’s the great opportunity that the side-hustle brings: you’re able to do work solely because that work means something to you; you’re not restricted to work that pays you what you need to earn.
Don’t forget the ‘hustle’ – this isn’t just a hobby
However, that willingness to work for exposure and opportunity doesn't make the side-hustle a hobby. It may not always involve money, but it certainly involves commitment. As a side-hustler, you need to set yourself definite goals and ambitions, and work towards them. In my case, those ambitions started with building my brand as a photographer, and driving engagement with the images I published via my site, www.rocknrollcocktail.com. But it didn’t end there. This year, I ran a kickstarter project to help publish my first book of concert photography, Down in Front. All of this took a lot of work. It taught me far more about myself as a result.
Don’t forget the ‘side’ part – respect the day job
A side-hustle may involve commitment, but that commitment has to take place on the side. You can’t afford to let it compromise the time and motivation that your main source of income has a right to expect from you. If you do, you’ll be betraying the essential trust that you need to be an effective side-hustler. In my view, the most effective side-hustlers are model professionals. They treat both their mainstream role and their independent additional work with absolute respect. They spend a lot less time binge-watching Westworld on the sofa as a result, but I don’t see that as a big loss. If you want to explore all sides of your potential, you are going to have to put in the hours.
Find the value on both sides of the hustle
In my experience, it’s treating your side-hustle as a business (even if it’s a business where little money changes hands) that surfaces most of the insights that can add value to your day job. You’re taking a passion and finding a way to translate it into a sustainable career – exploring how creativity translates into opportunity. That’s fantastic insight to bring to marketing.
Life as a photographer gives me a huge appetite for pushing the boundaries and finding new ways to engage audiences. When I’m working with a new marketing format like video for Sponsored Content on LinkedIn, I find myself drawing all types of ideas from my experiences shooting bands and editing my images. I know how much difference an innovative angle or an unexpected way of framing a shot can have on how people respond. That’s the value my side-hustle brings to my mainstream hustle, and I’m passionate about leveraging every inch of that value for LinkedIn.
Look at the history of the side-hustle, and you’ll find the same pattern regularly repeating itself. The legendary film director Alan Parker started life as an advertising agency copywriter who liked to visualise the agency’s ideas in an amateur film studio, on the side. He became a celebrated commercials director, but his side-hustling didn't end there. Parker wanted to make feature films, and so he kept experimenting with techniques that would work in the cinema. That lateral thinking and inspiration helped him to create some of the most memorable TV spots in the golden age of advertising. It gave him a distinct visual style all his own.
Build a personal brand that incorporates your hustle
It’s possible to get value from a side-hustle without talking about it. You can get private satisfaction from what you’re doing, and secretly apply the lessons of your experiences to get better at your day job. However, you get a lot more value when you talk about both sides of your professional life openly. Your side-hustle can help to build a distinct and differentiated personal brand. It can build your profile as a thought-leader by enabling you to draw on unique experiences and perspectives. And it can start different types of conversations that bring about all kinds of ideas and opportunities through the power of serendipity.
If you take your side-hustle seriously, you’ll have earned the right to talk about it and be proud of it. And if you’re working for a business that’s interested in all of your potential, then that business will see the value in you doing so. After all, who doesn’t want to talk about their dreams – especially if they’re not compromising everything else in life to follow them.