Can someone effectively produce work with a focus on a passion? I can attest that it can be done. How do you strike the right balance–so that you have the focus to perform consistently and the time to restore your reserves? The answer requires a bit of soul searching, such as the kind Willow Belden did for her recent Quartz piece, “What to Do When Your Dream Job Makes You Miserable“. 

As she begins her story, her tone is full of promise: “This spring, I created my dream job. At least, I’m sure that’s the way it looks. It’s a job that blurs the line between work and play—a job where the things I do for fun, like hiking and cycling, can happen ‘on the clock.'” And then she reveals her reality: “And yet no position has ever left me more emotionally drained.”

Many of us wish we could do something we love as a day-job, and Belden somewhat ruefully applies our cultural logic: “It should have been perfect. I had found a way to create a career out of my passion—to meld my training as a journalist with my love for the wild. I was following the advice we always hear: do what you love; love what you do.”

So what went wrong? Belden pinpoints the mistake of using a vacation as source material for a work project, during which her careful preparations seem to become snare she set for herself. Rather than a sense of freedom and discovery she enjoyed in non-work travel, she finds herself plodding along under the weight of the project. In creating a narrative out of lived events, she is essentially living her experiences more than once. Add in the preparations, and the “experience” seems become burdensome, and maybe even dull. 

As she reports, “I was getting good ‘tape,’ as we radio nerds call it. But the more audio I gathered, the more my excitement for the bike tour faded. What had once seemed a thrilling adventure—a time to escape the real world and rejuvenate in the woods—was now a chore. I realized with a sinking feeling that this trip wouldn’t be a break from work; it would be round-the-clock work.”

As soon as she stepped back from the “work” perspective, her interest and excitement returned. Under poor conditions, she decides to end the trip early, and has a unique adventure that she finds rejuvenating. And isn’t that the point of downtime?

Some takeaways from Belden’s story: 

  1. Doing what you love for work still has to count as work. Reasonable work-life balance should still include some downtime that’s work-free–even if you’re doing what you love.
  2. A full-time passion project isn’t for everyone. A side project or time-limited engagement may be a great way to test the waters and see if you’re ready–preferably before you set out to swim the channel.  

Your dreams about work just came true, and you can dedicate yourself to your passion project. Now what?