Your Hobby, Your Career

Are you considering what it would take to turn your hobby interest in Magic into a lifelong career? John Dale Beety has some advice for his younger self that he’d like to pass on to you too, then, so you know what lies down that path well enough to consider it.

Maybe you’ve thought about making a hobby a career. It could be Magic: the Gathering. It could be comic books. It could be chess. Whatever it is, you have a hobby, and you want to make it your career. It’s your dream job, doing what you love and loving what you do.

I have what you want: I’m a professional hobbyist, mixing business and pleasure to pay the bills. I’ve never known anything else in my adult life.

I can’t say I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot.

If you’re looking for happy cheery woo-woo about following your passion, go to your nearest commencement speech not given by David McCullough, Jr. (Just remember: he’s not special either.) I’m going to give some straight talk about making a hobby into a career, the steps I’ve taken, and why you really shouldn’t do it.

There’s an old story I read from Peter Rubie (which I originally found in one of his fiction-writing books, not online, though it’s in e-form here). To paraphrase the moral, there’s nothing I can say to stop any reader who’s determined to make a hobby into a career. To them, I can only give a few truths about the road ahead and a sincere “good luck.”

On the other hand, if I stop you, I’ve done my job. You’ll still have a hobby to enjoy with the money you make in your regular work. Turning a hobby into a career means risking both – and for good or ill, nothing about you or your hobby will be the same.

Where I Am

I’ve had a decent run in adulthood, including full-time work since I left college – always connected with one of my hobbies.

Right now I’m a copy writer for StarCityGames.com, combining my love for words with my passion for Magic: the Gathering. Over the past eighteen months I’ve had cause to coin the phrase “adorable terror of the family bathtub,” churn out as many puns as possible for the famous “Dominaria Resort” playmat of Grand Prix Orlando, and scribble the scripts for awesome SCG States commercials.

Sulien of the Mire isn’t evil. He’s just misunderstood.

I’ve also had days where I felt a little bit sick and a lot more uninspired, but the words weren’t going to write themselves, so I wrote them anyway. It’s all part of the do-work-get-paid game.

That’s where I am right now. Before I moved to Star City I was living in the Big D (and I do mean Dallas), working for an auction house, writing about rare coins of the United States of America and handling some of the most historic rarities in the field. If the things were great, most of the people were awesome. I was surrounded by people who knew what it meant to be a collector, what made me tick.

For more than seven years I held a position that got dozens of eager applicants every time a similar one opened up. The talent levels varied; the passion did not. People wanted it, not merely because it was a job but because it was their dream job.

I had their dream job for more than seven years. I burned out. I walked away.

And on more nights than I care to count, I grieve for what I’ve lost.

Tough Truth #1: Your Relationship With Your Hobby Will Never Be The Same.

As soon as you make your hobby your career, steel yourself to kiss that hobby goodbye.

It’s the worst-case scenario – and all too common. In most collecting fields, whether contemporary art or coins or comic books, the top collectors and the top experts are seldom the same. That’s not to say they can’t overlap; Eric P. Newman, who’s as close as one can come to a living deity of coin collecting, assembled one of the best collections of all time while also making massive contributions to knowledge in the field.

That said, even Eric P. Newman is, in the most denotative and uninsulting sense, an amateur: a retired corporate vice president who collects and writes about coins for love, not a living. A top-tier collector who’s also a professional in the same field is much rarer. You might as well go unicorn hunting.

It takes great passion to reach the point where a hobby can become a career. The field of wannabes is crowded, and it’s hard to stand out in a sustainable way. To become a professional hobbyist, you must first treat the hobby as seriously as you would a profession – at which point, of course, the hobby is no longer a hobby. What once was an escape is now a job.

Coin collecting was my first significant, long-term hobby. The pure joy of my child and teen years is long gone, a consumer’s glee replaced by an insider’s critical eye. And if you get to the top, regularly seeing the best of the best? Good luck affording your new baseline for rarity and quality.

I wasn’t ready for that change at 21, when I started work as a full-time coin professional. I was lucky in that I had Magic as a backup hobby. I threw myself into Magic with the same passion I once had for coins – and as with coins, my love for the game turned into something different entirely. Some things haven’t changed this time around; I still have to navigate conflict-of-interest rules, for instance. On the other hand, so far I’ve done a better job of navigating the hobby-to-career transition with Magic, and now that I don’t depend on coin collecting to provide my livelihood I’m starting to rediscover the joy. Still, that will take time.

Tough Truth #2: Passion + Skills = Pay.

One of the most common comments I’ve heard over the past decade is some variation of “You [look at coins / play Magic] all day! That’s my dream job! You’re so lucky.”

Ha-ha-ha nope.

I’ve never actually played a game of Magic on the clock while working for StarCityGames.com, and when I looked at rare coins at the auction house, that was a prelude to writing a description for a future auction catalog.

Make no mistake: if you want to make your hobby your career, you will work to get there and then you will work to keep it that way.

No sensible company or customer will pay for knowledge or passion alone. It’s how you apply that passion and make it useful to others that determines whether your hobby-turned-career will pay at all, and if so, how much.

To give one example, I have writing skills. First I wrote descriptions for rare coin auction catalogs; now I write marketing copy aimed at Magic: the Gathering fans. Others may be talented at grading collectibles or making sales.

There are two main paths to making a hobby-turned-career pay: employment or entrepreneurship.

Tough Truth #3: Working For Someone Else? You’re Taking A Discount.

At least early on, before you prove yourself, the “cool factor” of making a hobby a career weighs down salaries. Competition for slots in existing companies is fierce, and someone who tries to play hardball on compensation usually will be met with a variation of “We’re too far apart” or “I’m sorry we couldn’t make this work.” There’s someone else almost as good in the applicant pile who’ll likely take the pay offered, so why should any company shell out more?

Beware of anyone who tries to take too much advantage of your enthusiasm. I may do work pro bono for a cause I find worthy, but I’m not working for a profit-making company for free. As the old joke goes, people die of exposure… why would you work for it?

At the same time, though, someone who’s making a hobby into a career should have an initial goal of “comfortable” rather than “rich” living. That said, you can and must give the boot to any work that takes up too much of your time while paying too little of your bills.

There is, of course, the siren song of another way: being your own boss.

Tough Truth #4: Entrepreneurship Is Some Scary Stuff.

You’re way more likely to fail than succeed no matter what business you start, hobby-related or no. You’re 50/50 on a small business surviving five years, and the odds are just one-in-three that it’ll last ten.

Even conventionally successful coin dealers can have a perilous existence when the market goes bad or a big-time customer suddenly goes flaky on payment. As a teenage coin collector (also known as a Young Numismatist/YN), I knew a young man a few years my senior. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. He had skills in certain areas that I’ll never match no matter how long I live.

Less than three years after leaving a coin company to set out on his own, he killed himself.* He wasn’t even 30.

* If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please get help right away. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 24/7/365 in the USA. Just call 1-800-273-TALK and you’ll get in touch with a trained crisis counselor confidentially and for free. If you’re not in the USA, click here for international resources.

There are people out there who survive by trading Magic cards and a few folks are genuine full-time Magic: the Gathering pros. I don’t have it in me to do either – I’m too risk-averse – and part of me is glad I know that so I don’t go off half-ready into my own business. Maybe your entrepreneurial streak can’t be tamed, though. If so, good luck. Even the StarCityGames.com juggernaut had to start somewhere. Maybe you’ll form its next worthy rival.

Tough Truth #5: You Need To Have An Exit Strategy.

Some of the top rare coin experts don’t have a college degree; they either started right out of high school or dropped out of college. I could’ve gone that route. I got my first (future) job offers at age twelve, when I already was on par with some professionals. But my mother insisted that I finish high school and college, and I’m glad she did.

It’s just not smart to go all-in on your hobby-turned-career working out. You need an exit strategy.

Nowadays, a bachelor’s degree is the baseline for most non-physical jobs that can earn a comfortable lifestyle. As I searched for a new job after my burnout, I found over and over that a bachelor’s degree was a prerequisite for the positions that matched my interests. You don’t have to go to an uber-expensive private school; a public university with in-state tuition will be just fine for your backup plan.

Is college not for you? Learn a trade that’s not easily automated.

Business books are full of capitalist heroes who either abandoned college or never went, pursuing entrepreneurship instead. The same books notably are silent on the many failures, except when they’re spectacular enough to serve as cautionary tales. It’s survivorship bias in the extreme.

Some of you will take the gamble anyway. I hope it works out.

Not-So-Tough Truth #6: Some Of Those Perks You Imagine Are Real.

I’ve seen and done things twelve-year-old me never would’ve dreamed. In my twenties I wrote about multi-million-dollar coins, held a seven-figure comic book and a Nobel Prize in my hands, told an astronaut about a literal gold bar on my desk, and a whole lot more.

At 30, I have regular contact with Evan Erwin. Think of your best brainstorm in the past year. He’ll make it seem like a brain-drizzle. I’m surrounded by top-shelf art, design, and video pros, and that’s just in my department.

Have I made some mistakes in my hobby-to-career transitions? Yes. I didn’t properly prepare myself, and more out of youthful ignorance than anything else, I didn’t recognize the danger signs of psychological burnout until I was well into it. I wouldn’t mind do-overs on those.

Everything else? Well, despite what B.o.B sang about in “Airplanes,” I don’t want to go back to a simpler time when my hobbies were just my hobbies. StarCityGames.com gives me work I love and a living besides.

Besides, 30-year-old me couldn’t have stopped twenty-year-old me from taking the hobby-to-career plunge. The best I could’ve done was give me/him advice and say “good luck.”

So good luck, whatever choice you make.