Portrait by Benjamin Thompson

How to Do What You Love for a Living

Dear friend,

I’m one of the very few blessed people in the world who does what they love for a living.

For my entire life, I’ve always believed in the idea that if you followed your passion, you would somehow be able to make a living from it. You might not be rich, but you will be able to survive on enough — and devote your entire life’s energy, to creating art to help empower others.

I want this to be a manual in terms of how I’ve been able to make my passion my living. This advice won’t necessarily be applicable to you — but I hope that a few nuggets of wisdom will resonate with you. Consider this a tip-sheet, and full of suggestions you can experiment with. I’ll also try to make the information in this manual practical, useful, and timeless.

Download

Be the change which you wish to see in the world

When I was a student, the quote I always used was from Gandhi — “Be the change which you wish to see in the world.”

I’ve always been an idealist ever since I was a middle school student. Even though I had a pretty shitty childhood growing up (abusive father, not sure if my mom could pay the rent every month) — I had great role models. I had great role models from my school, local community, and church.

Growing up, I got so much help from the community. The months where my mom couldn’t pay rent, our family or my mom’s friends would help us pay the rent. When I wanted to learn tennis, my coach (Greg Lowe) gave me free tennis lessons. When I wanted to learn, the internet gave all this free information that helped empower me.

When I was in Boy Scouts, I learned leadership skills from the local community leaders. I learned how to help the community through the local Korean-American center I interned for. I was blessed to have been given a top-notch education from the free public school system in America. Even for university — if it weren’t for the scholarships, loans, and help from the U.S. government — I wouldn’t have been able to become the person I am today.

Therefore I feel a great sense of debt and gratitude. I know the purpose of my life is to help empower other people. This is because others have helped empower me.

What is your biggest frustration?

One of the best ways to discover your “passion” in life, is to figure out what pisses you off or frustrates you the most.

For example, I was always hungry for information and technology ever since I was a kid. However, I always thought it was bullshit that all this education and information was so expensive. I remember how angry I was regarding the prices of textbooks in college. To me, I always thought information should be open and free — especially when it could empower people.

Therefore I started to really buy into this “open source” philosophy — where information is open and free. I feel this is how society improves — with the free-flow of information and education.

Of course, I can’t force the rest of the world to just give away all their information for free. I’m also a pragmatist. I know authors need to get paid to make a living. But for me, I wanted to figure out how I could innovate — how could I give away all this free information, but still make a living?

For me, that meant giving away information for free, and making my living from teaching workshops, and more recently — selling physical products (photography books, manuals, and camera tools).

The benefit of growing up poor

I find the biggest benefit I had growing up poor was this — it forced me to be more innovative, and it gave me a sense of hustle.

For example, growing up my mom barely had enough money to pay for the rent each month. It didn’t help that my dad was also a chronic gambler.

Therefore as a kid growing up, I rarely got presents or toys. I had to be innovative. I picked up drawing at a young age, because it was the easiest and cheapest entertainment and creative outlet for myself. I played with my friends, and went to the park a lot.

When I got a little bit older (11 years old), I got the first most empowering tool: the personal computer. I still remember my first computer fondly — an Acer desktop PC, which had a 28.8k modem. The computer empowered me beyond my wildest dreams. I couldn’t afford to buy video games, but I figure out how to pirate them online, in the early AOL chat rooms. In middle school and high school, Kazaa/Limewire/Napster helped me get access to downloading free games, computer programs, and music. In college, I discovered torrents, which helped me get access to the entire internet.

Now I’m lucky enough that I have money — I can now afford to pay for my software, and tools. But when I was young, poor, and had no money, I couldn’t.

Therefore my direction in life is to produce free information, free tools, to help those without access.

Following your own passion

What is something you believe in deeply? How do you want to change the world in a positive way? What were the difficulties, frustrations, or disadvantages that you grew up with?

Most successful entrepreneurs are those who end up scratching their own itch. Steve Jobs hated how complicated computers were to use. Elon Musk wants to save the world from destroying itself, and didn’t see any satisfactory electric cars, nor space exploration companies. Therefore they both started their own ventures to help scratch their own itch, and to also empower the rest of humanity.

What were the crazy, idealistic ideas you had when you were a kid — before your teachers beat out your idealism from you? What changes did you want to make in the world, before your parents and teachers told you that you had to be “realistic” and make a living?

What if you had a basic income?

Let’s say one day you were given a basic income which paid for your living expenses. Let’s assume you were given a simple studio apartment, with free simple meals, and you had an internet connection. And of course, (lots) of free coffee.

What would you do with your entire life? What would you do with your time? What creative pursuits would you follow, if you didn’t have to worry about paying rent? What if you no longer had to worry about money?

As I’m writing these lines, I’m currently at a coffee shop in Vietnam. I have access to free wifi, I have a computer, and in theory, I can never run out of money. My daily expenses are roughly:

  • $5 a day in coffee
  • $10 a day in meals
  • $20 a day in accommodation/expenses
  • $15 in random expenses

My expenses average let’s say $50 a day (and that is on the high end). I’m currently earning around $60 a day in “passive income” (selling books, products, interest from some investments).

Therefore I am earning a surplus of around $10 a day. Assuming I never leave Vietnam, I can never run out of money.

Now the point I bring this up isn’t to brag or show off. Rather, it is to show how little we really need to “survive.”

And these expenses are me living a luxurious life (by local standards). If I really wanted to live the bare minimum, living expenses can be something like this:

  • $2 a day in coffee (2 coffees in a nice coffee shop)
  • $3 a day in food (2x street meals)
  • $5 a day for accommodation (hostel)

In theory, I could live for $10 a day in Vietnam, which is only $300 a month.

Often, I worry too much about money. Because I always have this irrational fear of death, or becoming homeless.

But in reality, I just need to earn $10 a day for survival.

Once I established this “survival” baseline — I realized that it is actually very easy to make a living from what you love. And remember, the key is a “living” — not a killing.

To do what you love for a living doesn’t mean you will become rich. It means you won’t be able to live in a fancy apartment, it means you can’t live in a fancy neighborhood, and of course it means you won’t have a BMW, own your own home, or go on holidays in the Bahamas. It means you will have the minimum to live — yet you will have all the freedom, flexibility, and time to do what you love, and don’t do what you don’t want to do (ultimate freedom).

What are your basic expenses?

So if you really want to do what you love for a living, figure out how much you really need to survive.

Of course, everyone’s expenses will be different. It will be different if you are single, if you had a kid, and it depends where you live.

When you calculate your basic expenses, you might be surprised to see how little you can really survive on.

One of my biggest inspirations is that when Elon Musk started his first businesses, he tried to figure out how cheap he could survive on food. He budgeted only $1 a day for food (hot dogs and spaghetti), he slept in sleeping bag in a rented office, and showered at the local gym.

Once again, try to cut your expenses to the absolute minimum. This is the first and most important step to doing what you want for a living, and earning your own freedom.

Learning business

In today’s world, capitalism rules the world. And the sad reality is that if you want to make a “living” in today’s world, you need to embrace the capitalist ethos.

That means learning how to do business. I would say that if you want to make a living what you want to do, invest in yourself by studying business.

It means that you don’t have to be a bloodthirsty capitalist. I do believe you can be an “ethical” capitalist, and an “ethical” entrepreneur.

One of the best (free) books I read was “My life and work” by Henry Ford. You can download the book for free in the public domain as an ePub or a PDF. Basically the fundamental principles I learned from him was this:

  • Business is all about solving the needs of the public.
  • Seek to reduce costs, and you don’t need to worry about profits.
  • Good business is all about reducing your price, while increasing quality in order to capture a larger market.

Harnessing the power of the internet

There is no better time than to become an entrepreneur than today. To be an “entrepreneur” doesn’t mean you need to create a million (or billion) dollar business. Rather, it means that you have a hunger to create the conditions of your own life. It means that you have an appetite for risk, for experimentation, and for creating value for others.

The ultimate currency in today’s digital economy is trust.

How do you build trust today?

Simple — you create value for others. You create practical, useful, and empowering information for others. You help others solve their problems. You do this in your own authentic voice, without being fake. You do it without bullshit — because people can smell bullshit from a mile away (even on the internet).

I am a bit skeptical of social media, but it is the best (free) tool you can use to build up your “social capital” (the trust others have in you).

If you’re building yourself up as a photographer, you can use social media to showcase your portfolio.

If you’re building yourself up as a consultant, author, teacher, or writer — you can use free blogging or website tools to share your message, values, and ideas.

With the internet and today’s digital economy, we have no excuses. We have all the tools to do what we love for a living. We have the ability to make a living from our passion. But what is holding us back?

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset

For me, one of the most important skills of an entrepreneur is mindset. If anything, your mind is your most valuable tool.

1. Not fearing failure

The first mindset to build is to not fear failure or being judged negatively by others.

One of the best things I learned (being an American) is not fearing failure. My teachers were always so encouraging — even if I messed something up, they wouldn’t chastise me for it. This made me hungry for experimentation, and trying things out. Even though my parents were traditional Asian parents, they were quite supportive. My mom encouraged me to “think different” — and to pursue my passion in life (while of course, doing well in school). Even when I lost my 9–5 job when I was 22 years old, and I told her that I wanted to pursue my photography full-time, she told me, “Eric — no matter what, I will always support you 100%”.

2. Learning how to tinker

I also learned how to tinker. I always loved hacking my own computer. When I was 15, I learned how to build my own computers — to upgrade the RAM, hard drive space, graphics card, and CPU. When I got my first car at age 16 (5-speed 1991 Nissan Sentra) I learned how to “mod” it — by adding a custom exhaust, headers, and intake (in order to make it go ‘faster’). I spray painted my own car, and changed the interior. Even with my digital devices — I prefer open-source platforms, which allow me to tinker and hack the interface, to make my devices my slave (rather than being a slave to my devices).

3. Helping others

The last most important thing I had was this drive to help others. To empower others. To build value in the lives of others.

When I started street photography, I was frustrated by the lack of information on the internet about how to shoot street photography. Therefore, I started my blog as an attempt to help others who had the same questions that I had.

Even today, the reason I am writing this manual is to help you discover how to make your passion into your living. I want to provide practical tools to help improve the lives of others, and hopefully helping humanity as a whole.

Hustling

I was very lucky that my first entrepreneurial endeavor (starting my own photography blog, and somehow making a living from it) worked out for me.

For me, my “recipe” for success was this:

  1. Good timing (starting my street photography blog in 2010, there were no other street photography blogs that existed)
  2. Luck
  3. Hustle (hard work)

I don’t think you can really control timing. You are the product of the times when you were born. For example, my mom tells me, “Eric, you’re so lucky to be born when you did. There is no way you can make a living from what you love, if you were born even 10 years earlier.” And she is true — if the internet didn’t exist, there is no way I could do what I love for a living.

I also think I’m quite lucky — that I was given the right mental tools from my environment. I was taught to take risks, to not fear failure, and to have this “American dream” idea growing up in the states. I was taught that I had control over my destiny, as long as I worked hard enough.

The most important thing I learned was a sense of hustle. And honestly, I think this is the only thing you can really control. You can’t control what society you were born in, you can’t control who your parents are, or you can’t control your genetic DNA.

However, you can control how hard you work.

But the problem is you can’t control whether you will be successful or not, even if you work hard. You still require timing and luck.

But I do believe that the harder you work, the more you increase your chances of success. This is thinking “probabilistically” — if you give 100% of your effort into building your own business, you might have a 60% chance of success. However if you only give 50% of your effort into building your own business, you might only have a 15% chance of success.

The harder you work, the more you make attempts at your business, the more likely you are to succeed. If you trying to hit a home run, you will want to swing your bat a lot. Taking a lot of small risks and chances in your life is like swinging the bat. You want to swing the bat as many times as possible, without striking out (going bankrupt, and losing all your money).

Lowering expenses

Another important principle I learned from my personal experience — the importance of lowering your expenses, overhead, and costs to the minimum.

I believe that profit in business isn’t how much money you earn. Rather, profit in business is how little expenses you spend.

For example, it never made sense to me why people rented office spaces, if you were an entrepreneur. Wouldn’t it just make more sense to work at home, or at coffee shops with free wifi?

Therefore when I was starting off, I tried to keep my expenses to a minimum. The biggest cost I had was paying for my own website server, which was only around $20 a month. And of course, paying for rent.

The biggest mistake I made (if I could give myself advice all over again) is wasting money on superfluous camera equipment I didn’t really need. I somehow had the idea that if I owned a good camera, it would help me become a great photographer, and I would build my prestige quicker. In reality, I just wasted thousands of dollars, and could have rather used that money to invest in my mind (buying more educational business books, philosophy books, or just paying my rent).

So the practical tip I have in doing what you love for a business is this — be ruthless about lowering your expenses. That might mean moving into a smaller apartment, or just renting a room. It might moving into a less-desirable neighborhood. It might mean moving overseas (like Thailand or Vietnam). It might mean getting rid of your car, and getting rid of your smartphone data plan. It might mean lowering your lifestyle (spending less money on food, going out, clothes, devices, etc).

Charging money for your services

In-between 2010–2016, about 90% of my income has come from teaching photography workshops.

To me, teaching workshops is a fantastic model. Why? Some reasons:

  1. You can’t “pirate” or “download” a workshop experience (I think that in the future, all information will eventually become free, and people who are trying to charge money for digital products will die off)
  2. People want an experience (experiences last forever, while physical products soon become outdated or redundant)
  3. The expenses are very low (to teach a workshop, all you need to do is rent a meeting room)

Not only that, but the market for education is expanding. Now we all have access to the internet and digital tools, which are practically free.

A lot of people bemoan this — but I think it is a great opportunity.

For example, the market for professional photographers is dying. As high-end digital cameras get better and cheaper, anybody (and everybody) is a photographer. You have college students shooting weddings for $500 (whereas in the past, a professional might have charged $5000).

But the benefit of cheap cameras is this — now everyone wants to learn how to take better photos. More photographers means more opportunities to teach photography.

Also as an aside, i feel that is the ultimate tool for an entrepreneur — flexibility. To be malleable, and change with the times. To adapt to modern technology, the modern economy, and changing society.

So for me, I’ve discovered the educational model fantastic for making a living from my passion. I’ve also had some good success (with the help of my partner Cindy) in selling photography manuals — which is essentially education.

There are a million ways you can monetize your passion. Some basic ideas:

  • Teaching/consulting/workshop
  • Offline/Online seminars/professional speaking
  • Advertising
  • Selling products (information-based, or physical)

But besides these practical ideas, the basic idea is this: you want to create something that your audience desires, wants, and needs.

For example, I discovered that most street photographers lack confidence. Most street photographers want to conquer their fears of photographing strangers. Therefore most of my workshops focus on that: building your confidence. So I’m not really in the business of photography, I’m in the business of self-empowerment and confidence-building.

Think about what you’re really selling to your audience.

Are you selling them information, that will empower them? Are you selling them an experience, which will bring them joy and excitement? Are you selling them a product which helps them be more creative and open-minded? Are you selling them confidence (self-help), peace of mind (insurance), or novelty (traveling, tourism)? Are you selling them a feeling (music) or escapism (TV/movies/media)? Are you selling them social connection, to make people less lonely?

In the future, technology is going to change rapidly. But what will not change? Social and human needs.

We all have a need to belong. We all have a need to express ourselves creatively. We all desire to have freedom and autonomy in our lives. We all desire to have novelty, and excitement in our lives. We all desire to reduce pain and suffering in our lives.

So how will your service, or product address these human problems and needs?

Fail forward

If you’re pursuing your passion for a living, you’re going to have to figure out what works (and what doesn’t work) by trial-and-error. Each time you try something out and it doesn’t work, don’t think of it as failure. Rather, think of it is as feedback. Don’t take failure personally.

If anything, you want to learn how to “fail forward” — to learn from your past mistakes, and figuring out how to improve.

Also a big practical tip: set yourself up so you make small mistakes and small failures. You don’t want any risk or failure to be terminal.

Therefore if you’re starting up a business, don’t put 100% of your money into a single decision or bet. That is a risk that you don’t need to make.

Rather, learn how to hedge your bets. I still think if you’re trying to pursue what you love for a passion, it is crucial to have a backup. That means build up your own business, while having a 9–5 job, with a steady income. Or that might mean to have some money in the bank, to pay your living expenses for at least 6 months while you’re building up your business.

I still prefer the model of having a steady job while you’re building up your business. Why? If your business fails, you will still be able to pay your rent. Having a 9–5 job gives you security to experiment, tinker, and partake in trial-and-error.

For me, I built up my photography blog while I had a 9–5 job. It took a solid year of blogging consistently (nearly everyday) before I built up a following and audience. I blogged before work, during lunch breaks, and after work. I also used dead time at work to build up my social media following.

So a practical tip: do the minimum necessary at your 9–5 job (to not get fired), while building up your company.

How to get paid

From the time of writing this (2016), I still find PayPal to be the easiest way to get paid for your services or products. Most people out there have a PayPal account. If not, you can even pay with your debit card and credit card through PayPal. PayPal only takes a small cut (around 2.9%) — and you can easily transfer your money from PayPal to your own bank account.

If you sell physical products I recommend using Amazon Seller to sell products. The concept is this — you create a product, you ship it to Amazon, and Amazon sells and “fulfills” it for you — by shipping it out for you. Amazon takes a cut for their services, they handle all the payment stuff, and then they pay you.

The benefit of selling through Amazon is this — most people in the states have an Amazon account. Therefore it is easier for people (at least Americans) to pay for your products.

Another good option is Etsy — which allows you to easily create a storefront. But the downside of Etsy is that people need to create an account before buying your products, which is unnecessary friction which might cost you to lose money in sales.

You can also sell products directly through PayPal — by just creating a HTML “buy button” — which is easy to integrate to your website. This is the option I generally recommend.

How do I know what to price my services or products for?

Just follow your gut. Honestly, there is no science behind pricing.

The best thing I learned is to price your services or products based on “value” — the value you bring to others. For example, if your product or service can help people save $1,000 — your product or service is probably worth at least $999 dollars. So if you have a product or a service which delivers at least $1,000 worth of value to your customer — and let’s say you charge $500, it is still a bargain for the customer.

Also another practical tip — most entrepreneurs sell themselves short. A practical tip: when in doubt, charge more.

Should I work for free?

When you’re brand brand new, and have no experience, I think it is fine to work for free, to build up your portfolio. This might be useful if you’re a photographer, writer, blogger, designer, makeup artist, or whatever you want to do for a living.

However there is going to be a certain point where you need to start charging money for your services.

I’d also say this piece of advice: you will never be 100% ready. So when you think your portfolio or body of work is “80% good enough” — start charging money for your services. But don’t sell yourself for cheap.

Sell benefits

When advertising or marketing your products or service, don’t try to sell people what you are going to do for them. Rather, sell the benefit you will give them.

Once again, are you selling them confidence? Creativity? Reducing their pain (physical or mental?) Are you selling them an experience, the chance to step outside their comfort zone, social interaction, or something else?

In your marketing and advertising language — emphasize the other person. Use the word “you” and “your” as much as possible. This makes it more personal, and human.

Never give up

In your pursuit of doing what you love, you will fail. Many times. You will get rejected, fail to make sales, and feel foolish along the way.

But never lose hope. Never give up. Always keep hustling, modifying, tinkering, innovating, and pursuing your dreams.

At best, you will live to be 80–90 years old. At worst, you might die of cancer, heart disease, or some tumor between ages 30–40.

Time is ticking. Why spend your life being ordinary, and living a conventional life? Don’t you want to use all your skills, passions, and talents to the upmost? Don’t you want to help empower others and humanity?

You were born for a great destiny. Channel your inner-entrepreneur, and be the change which you wish to see in the world.

Always, Eric

Learn more: Entrepreneurship >