After two years at home caring for her twins, Esther needed to start earning again. Yet when her former boss offered her another paralegal job, she hesitated. A natural listener who loved to help others solve their problems, Esther always dreamed of being a counselor. She figured it was now or never: she’d join a one-year certificate program and then open her own practice. 

Before taking the plunge, Esther asked friends, mentors, and practicing counselors for advice. Some cheered her on: “You have to do what you love. You’re a natural. Go for it.” Others warned: “So-called ‘counselors’ are a dime a dozen. You’ll never find clients.” 

The more Esther heard, the more confused she felt. Should she pursue her “dream” or stick with the sensible option?

“Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow”

Many accomplished business people will tell you that this maxim is the secret to their success. But unfortunately, some people mistakenly abandon their reliable but tedious income source and risk everything to do what they love, hoping that the money will magically pour in. 

In truth, all this popular saying tells us is that it’s much easier to be financially successful if you enjoy your work. So, yes, your start-up ventures should be in fields that excite you. But contrary to what some personal development gurus may say, your “passion” doesn’t necessarily point the way to a satisfying, lucrative business opportunity. In fact, research has shown that the opposite is often true. 

Psychological experiments have proven that being paid to do something will often decrease your intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of it over time. In what’s known as the “over-justification effect,” preschoolers lose interest in cutting-and-pasting after being rewarded to do so, volunteers lose motivation if paid, and the performance of athletes will often decline after signing a professional contract. 

Take the example of Sara: ever since she was a little girl, she loved to sew. As a teenager, she took fashion design classes and aspired to one day create gorgeous evening gowns. Her dream was realized when she opened her own dressmaking business. Ten years later, it was thriving. 

One day a young woman saw her at work and remarked: “I can’t believe you get paid to do this. I love sewing.” 

Sara sighed as she hurriedly stitched another button onto a mother-of-the-bride suit that was supposed to be finished yesterday.”I also used to love sewing,” she said.

How to Kill a Lifelong Passion

Sara’s situation is common among people who pursue their hobby as a business. If it’s in a lucrative field it can pay dividends, but your enjoyment of your passion will probably diminish over time, especially when you’re overwhelmed by deadlines, customer demands, and the less-enjoyable tasks of operating a business. 

Career guidance maven Cal Newport is an outspoken critic of the do-what-you-love movement. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he argues that following one’s passions often leads to a dead end. He argues that it’s better to master in-demand skills that you’re naturally drawn to and then use your success as a springboard to pursue your passions on the side without financial pressure. 

Treating your hobby this way has two big benefits: 

1. You protect your gift: Nothing ruins your passion for your passion like a pressing financial imperative to succeed in it — or failure in your attempts to make it “successful.” 

2. You don’t have to “sell out”: In any business, you must continually bow to the whims, opinions, and trends of your clients and the market. You’re a slave to their attention, approval, and wallets. This reality is incompatible with staying true to your passion, which flows from a place in your soul. Just ask popular musicians — their fans always want them to play their old songs, even though the musicians themselves are sick of them. 

But I Hate My Job!

No one is suggesting that you should spend most of your waking hours doing tasks that you hate. But don’t look at your current dissatisfaction as a sign that you must “follow your life’s purpose.” Rather, just make sure your job is something you enjoy. 

If you’re like most people, there are a several things you love doing. For example, you might love playing cello, volunteering with the elderly, and doing aerobics. These possibly could translate into careers as a musician, an activities coordinator in a nursing home, or a personal trainer. When opening a business, it makes sense to explore the opportunities that have the best financial and lifestyle prospects, while pursuing your other hobbies on the side. 

So what about Esther? Should she pursue her counseling career? That depends. How much time and money must she invest in this new profession — and how does that match up with how much she’ll likely earn? Does she have the determination to pursue new clients in an overly saturated field? How will she feel if she fails — will it kill her love of counseling? 

Esther doesn’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach. Perhaps she can volunteer for a crisis hotline while she’s bringing in money through her paralegal job. Meanwhile, she can take night classes in her field. If she goes about it wisely, she can indeed turn her passion into a successful business (see below). 

When deciding whether to pursue a business opportunity, enjoyment is essential. But pure passion and “dreams” are sometimes better left aside. They are often too precious to subject to the harsh dollars-and-cents reality of putting bread on the table.

Tips to Starting a Fulfilling Business

1. Evaluate the market before you jump in. Even if you’re passionate about something, it won’t help if the field is flooded with competitors. 

2. Look for the weaknesses in your industry or for what no one else is doing yet and see if you can step in and fill that role. 

3. Put your energy into something that can offer you excellent profits — there are few things as fulfilling as knowing all your hard work is paying dividends.