The Trap of Doing What You Love For a Living (And How to Avoid It)

Do you love your job so much that you're willing to compromise what your time is worth to continue doing it? Learn to avoid the trap of doing what you love for a living with these strategies for pursuing your passions in ways that don't compromise your value or your values.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be gainfully employed in the field of your dreams, you’ve had a taste of the fulfillment that comes with doing what you love for a living.

I had the great fortune of that experience at age 21. I had just graduated college and secured a job on a year long tour of the musical comedy Cinderella.

I still remember my first few days of work. I sat in rehearsals pinching myself, not believing my dreams were coming true….


The Danger of Doing What You Love For a Living


A few months later, the Fall of 2008 hit and my dream job was cut short.

By January 2009, I was back in New York City ‘pounding the pavement’ to find my next gig.

Despite the global economic upheaval and the well-known struggle of forging a career in the arts, my fresh out of college naiveté left me optimistic.

About a month later I got my first bitter taste of the profession I had come to love…


I was offered a contract to play three principal roles in three musicals for a grand total of $225 a week. 


In addition to rehearsals and performances, I would be expected to contribute to other technical elements of the show – sets, costumes, etc.

Mind you, this was not a summer job in between college semesters. This was my living.

I turned down the offer.

Instead, I took a comparatively lucrative job as a singer on a cruise ship… which I absolutely hated. Two months and multiple counts of sexual harassment later, I quit.

I spent the following year working all over the map. First, at a regional theater, then on the road, touring. I was performing and I loved it. But every contract I negotiated, I felt I had to give up more and more to continue doing what I loved for a living.

Less pay. Fewer benefits. Questionable working conditions.

I was on a tour where we would get on the bus at 5am, drive until 4pm, check into the hotel, then drive to the theatre for a 5pm sound check followed by a performance…every day…for months!

Every other aspect of life started to become secondary. I was giving up everything from basic financial security to once in a lifetime celebrations with friends and family to continue ‘pursuing my passion‘.

In the year that followed, I decided I had to become a member of Actor’s Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors.

I wouldn’t go to other auditions, I wouldn’t accept non-union contracts.

I saw the union as the solution to my problems – it would protect me from unpaid wages, ridiculous hours and unreasonable job expectations.

And just before Christmas, it happened. I was offered my first union contract with the opportunity to become a member.

I couldn’t pay the membership fee fast enough. Not only was I going to continue doing what I loved, but I was going to get benefits, insurance and the protection of my union.

Within a few months of becoming a full-fledged member, I got a job offer.

I was called in as a last minute replacement, so I didn’t know much about the contract other than the fact that I would be performing in a multi-million dollar musical at Madison Square Garden!

I jumped in and learned the show in two days.


I was so enthralled with the production and everyone I was working with that I didn’t think twice about contracts or pay.


And then it came… $542 a week (before taxes, union dues, and agent fees). It couldn’t be right.

I had made it. I was in the union. We were playing one of the biggest theaters in New York City. This was a dream job. 


I loved what I was doing so much, I wound up not even caring that my take home pay was less than $400 each week.


But my rose colored glasses started to neutralize when I began to calculate my financial reality.


When Your Dream Job Doesn’t Pay Enough


In four weeks I would take home roughly $1,600. (If you know anything about New York City living, you know that $1,600/month doesn’t leave much wiggle room – especially with unemployment just around the corner).


What had I allowed myself to accept simply because I was so in love with the work?


How could the union allow it? How could my co-workers allow it? How could I allow it?


I loved that job so much, I would’ve done it again. And I know my co-workers would have too. And therein lies our weakness as people who love what they do….


We are willing to compromise everything, including the ability to meet our basic needs, to continue doing what we love for a living.

BUT If we continue to negotiate the things we need, proper and fair payment being chief among them, we can lose the freedom to pursue the lives and careers we love altogether.


Doing What You Love And Paying The Bills


The real danger in doing what you love for a living is liking your job so much that you’re willing to compromise what your time is worth to continue doing it.


When you know you’re being undervalued, or that your work is compromising your relationships, or preventing you from fulfilling your personal priorities, and you’re STILL not willing to walk away, doing what you love becomes a liability.


If we don’t want end up in a position of continuous compromise, we need to reframe doing what we love within the context of our lives as a whole. Building lifestyles we love, not just careers we love.


Lifestyles that reflect all of our values, needs and priorities and not just a select one or two at the exclusion of all others.


Doing What You Love vs. Building a Lifestyle You Love


I know that some might argue that being truly passionate about something means being willing to compromise all else, but I struggle to understand who that narrative benefits, other than employers who continue to offer lesser wages and fewer benefits.

It’s also a limiting narrative. If you think your only options are doing what you love for a living and being broke – or – getting a well paying job and being unfulfilled, you’re essentially giving yourself the option of struggling professional fulfillment or miserable personal stability. What a lose – lose!

If we can begin to accept that doing what we love for a living is part of our passion and not the singular definition of it, we can begin to think more creatively and holistically about how to build lifestyles that reflect all of our values and priorities, not just a select one or two.

Here are some steps to get started…


Design Your Dream Lifestyle in EVERY Domain


If you’ve always been motivated by passionate career pursuits, you’ve probably spent plenty of time contemplating your dream job – imagining what it would look and feel like to do what you love full-time.

Be sure to apply that same level of careful consideration to all of your lifestyle domains –  relationships, family, health, home, lifestyle, feelings and finances, (in addition to career).

When you give yourself permission to define your ideal in each of your lifestyle domains, you begin to uncover what matters most to you. Namely, your guiding values and priorities. 

As you get clear with your vision, you’ll be better able to align your to-dos with those priorities, giving consideration to all of your values as you move forward with next steps, rather than blindly pushing forward your career goals without consideration for your other priorities.


Consider Your ‘Whys’


As you review your goals in each of your lifestyle domains, consider the ‘whys’ behind them.

For example, if my goal is to be in a Broadway show, my ‘why’ might be the high salary of a Broadway contract, or the validation of being on Broadway, or the thrill of performing in New York City, or a combination of all of the aforementioned.

When I look at those ‘whys’ though, they’re not particularly compelling. They’re largely ego driven and shaped by the expectations of others.

I find this to be true among my colleagues as well – all those acquaintances who say they’d gladly leave show business if they could just get one Broadway contract.

That’s not doing what you love for a living, that’s the avoidance of ‘failure’, and it makes for a weak, unsustainable goal.

As you reflect on your goals – career and otherwise – it’s critical to consider the ‘whys’ behind them to assess whether those goals are sustainable over the long-term.

Generally speaking, goals that work long-term are based on your values, they’re grounded in your desired feelings and they’re largely within your control.

Goals that don’t work tend to be ego-driven, outside of your control, shaped by the expectations of others and out of alignment with your core value systems.


Refine Your Dream


If you find that some of your goals are weak – ego-driven, shaped by the expectations of others or out of alignment with your vision and desired feelings – either cross them off your list or think about ways you can transform them into strong goals.

This will give you an opportunity to consider new goals that better align with your ‘why’.

For example, if I want to be in a Broadway show to have more financial stability and bask in the joy of performing, there may be other vehicles better suited to those ends that also align with my core values in other lifestyle domains.

For example, in addition to greater financial stability, I may also want more personal flexibility, which a Broadway show playing nights and weekends may not offer.

In my case, starting my own business enabled the financial stability I craved while providing the flexibility I needed to pursue performing on my own terms, without compromising personal pursuits like travel or time with friends and family.

By considering all of my lifestyle priorities, I was able to uncover more sustainable and fulfilling approaches to my career.


Ditch the Either/Or Approach


Entertaining and exploring new approaches to career goals doesn’t mean giving up on them. Just as saying yes to non-career priorities like family, friends and flexibility doesn’t mean saying ‘no’ to professional fulfillment and doing what we love.

Research shows that people who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled. So even if what you love isn’t what you do full-time, working on your passion a little bit each day, (even if it’s just for 15 minutes), can still generate feelings of fulfillment.


If we give ourselves permission to say ‘yes, and’ when considering our lifestyle priorities instead of choosing one at the expense of all others, we can begin the process of finding more fulfilling and sustainable pathways to creating lifestyles we love, and avoid the traps of dream jobs that don’t pay enough and require constant, unsustainable compromise.


Join the FREE 7-day Cash Confidence Challenge to start the process of grounding your goals in your financial reality to create a lifestyle you love!


80 responses to “The Trap of Doing What You Love For a Living (And How to Avoid It)

  1. wow, I’m really sorry to hear that. I never really did anything I loved except maybe exotic dancing (and that had its horrible moments believe me) but I got paid very well. Then I “aged out” . Talk about reality. Anyway, maybe if more people knew about this it would change. Good Luck honey.

  2. As someone who has spent their entire career working in the entertainment industry, I can completely relate to your story. I’ve taken low paying jobs and worked long hours, all for the love of entertainment. The competition for even a foot in the door is brutal, and many people are willing to do whatever it takes. It’s easier when you’re fresh out of college, but eventually you start to wonder if it’s a sustainable lifestyle longterm. I know a lot of people in similar situations who eventually leave the business.

  3. This is a very interesting story. I have never been a “do what you love” person. I am a “do what you find interesting” person and “leave what you love as something you don’t get paid for”. I have always been one of those people who, if I start relying on something for my income, I stop loving it.

    1. Perhaps someday theatre will become a hobby for me, but I’ll never regret fighting for my career. It has introduced me to the most amazing people and given me once in a lifetime experiences.

  4. A friend of mine loves theater as well. She is more in love with the production side, but after producing a NYMF show and working on a bunch of others, without much financial stability, she actually decided to go to law school to explore other, potentially more stable areas of the industry. Perhaps one day she will be working for the union and will be fighting to help folks like you out with wages and working conditions!

  5. I feel your pain. A great friend of mine is currently on Broadway in a major show, and I was shocked when he shared money issues. I think the problem is that the producers know that you love what you do and they take advantage of that. A union is only good if it is a strong union, and it seems as though the actor’s union is not one of those.

  6. To borrow a line from Chorus Line… “What I did for love…”
    The music union is the same. In fact, as teachers, we were told to never, ever join the union unless we were only teaching part time and our students weren’t performing live. You make more money out of the union than in. Just less job security and perks.

  7. Oh my gosh, it’s a funny-not-funny kind of thing but when I saw you were clearing $400 a week, I thought, that’s actually really good. And I laughed out loud that you thought you’d get protection from the union, but again, not in a good way. Or even an at you way, since I thought that once upon a time too. I’ve actually not made the jump into the union, because until really recently, I had no reason to. I’m not sure I ever will now, because working for slaves wages is kind of beneath me. I actually went to an interview with a company that put one of their key points in their company goals on their website was to pay all people involved in the company a fair living wage. They offered me $100 for three weeks of full time work. WTF? ARfjehrsgse. Anger. Just don’t put that on your website then!!

    I’d rather keep my safe job for now, which is not a dream job or really all that fun, and work stage management gigs around it when I can (and if I can ever get anyone to ever hire me again… sigh. That’s a story for another time, although one I’m sure you know too).

    1. Sounds good till you think about that MSG is a 5,000 seat house and a typical broadway house doesn’t seat more than 1200. The fact that salary is less than a third of production minimum is completely unacceptable.

  8. My husband got his first bachelor’s degree in theatre and tried acting in the big city for a few years upon graduation. But, like you, he got frustrated with the low pay and uncertainty. After we met, he decided that he needed more stability to have a family and ultimately went back to school to get a degree in an in-demand field.

      1. Yeah, but it worked out. We wanted to have a family and the acting life doesn’t necessarily jive. If he kept acting, he would be gone most nights and weekends. That wouldn’t work for us.

        Now we’re doing the family thing in suburbia. We’re very happy!

  9. Thanks for sharing the story…I had no idea the people backstage and in the pits make so much more than the actual actors. It is great that you are so passionate about what you do. I’m not sure what that is for me…maybe I was never able to find it because it was ingrained in my head that I needed to found a job that was practical and that could pay the bills. But as the saying goes…if you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

  10. Sobering story, Stefanie. From a negotiation standpoint, it makes sense. If people love the job and would do it under almost any circumstances, they have little leverage in negotiating higher pay.

    I don’t hate my job, but I don’t love it either. From a purely financial perspective, I guess there is a benefit there.

    But while it’s hard to quantify, there’s great value in doing what you love, too.

  11. Hearing this story makes me admire you that much more Stefanie. If not for the pay but for the determination you have to work in a job you love. I would love to stop the soul-sucking main freelance job I have but the money is what keeps me going. THATS IT. I freaking love blogging though and I’m working my butt off to make that a more lucrative income. I would love to be location independent (I sort of am already) and free of some of the clients I work with on certain projects. Its what drives me. Keep breaking a leg…is that what they’d say? 🙂

  12. Probably the most interesting thing about this whole story is this: not many people (myself included, until now) are aware how little performers are paid. I think you are spot on, though, that it primarily has to do with your love of the job and the fact that others in the area love it just as much as you do. I, on the other hand, do not “LOVE” being an accountant sitting in a cubicle, though it pays well and isn’t terribly stressful most of the time, so I can’t complain. But when you love what you do you are willing to work for less. If enough people love what they do and you are all going after the same jobs, the pay won’t be that high. Hopefully you guys can get those rates up.

  13. It’s wonderful that you are able to fearlessly go after your passion as your full-time job. I would love to be able to pursue my passion full time but I know that I also crave stability.. which is exactly what my 9-5 job provides me.

  14. I realized a while ago I couldn’t be a professional performer for this reason. I’ve worked a lot in arts admin and teaching, and that also has it’s downsides and low pay. I feel like I’ve always taken jobs I’ve loved and always had a low pay. I started thinking about this recently, and it really sucks. I wonder if I can make money doing what I love, or do I have to do something else to make money and do what I love on the side? It sucks. That sweet taste of success quickly becomes bitter when reality hits.

  15. I think that there is certainly something to be said for being able to do what you love. But it has to be a balance. For me, I have people depending on me, so what I have to look for is something that I love— that also pays the bills. What I ended up settling on is great, but I wouldn’t say it was my passion.

    1. I have put off settling down, starting a family, etc to pursue this and I find that’s common in my industry. I have friends who had done it for so long, they were in their late 40s by the time they finally got around to having a baby.

  16. I’m very lucky in that I believe I am doing my dream job, and getting paid very well for it. Being a software engineer may not sound like a dream job, but it fits me to a “T.” I get to work with bleeding edge technology and I get to solve really hard problems. It keeps my brain moving, and I look forward to going to work each and every day!

  17. I really enjoyed this read Stefanie. If for nothing else to understand the emotions you go through being an actor. I feel your passion for the profession and your willingness to sacrifice at great cost to be involved in it. I find that admirable.

  18. Hearing your cruise story in person was such a reality check. That needs an entire post! I’d love to have a chat with you sometime about the union(s) and get more details about how they operate. I’m quite fascinated by the whole process.

    P.S. I bring home only $50 more a month (after taxes, 401k contributions and pre-tax transit cards) than you did on that show. Granted, I get full benefits I don’t pay for and five weeks paid vacation which certainly softens the blow, but it gets incredibly frustrating to live in NYC on such a meager salary.

    1. It always strikes me how low NY salaries are, all around. Maybe it’s just an over saturated market?

      The cruise ship was a nightmare. (More details in my staff post for seedebtrun tomorrow). We can talk union stuff at the meet up- there’s a lot of issues and unrest right now.

  19. Thanks for sharing your story, Stefanie. I am one of those people who advocate following your passions as I have been fortunate to be able to do so and make a good living in my primary job. Right now I have made a substantial investment in The Heavy Purse (printing, illustrator, etc) which I have not seen a huge return on. Yet, it’s my passion and something I care so deeply about. So right now it’s a labor of love and I continue to make the investment. I’m sorry to hear the Actor’s Union is such a mess and clearly not being great advocates for their members. You certainly deserve to be paid a fair wage!

  20. Thanks for sharing this Stefanie – it’s exciting to get a glimpse of your performing life! I can’t believe your costume was worth $12,000! For me, I would accept low pay and poor benefits for doing something that I really loved – although, I’d hope to make it work. The only thing is that I haven’t found that passion yet anyway!

  21. Very impressive how you’ve been able to do what you love. To be honest, I try to do what I love on the side, but fear and contentment with my present situation prevent me from really doing it. That, and I need money to make it happen. I know I’ll get there one day, but I’m impressed how you’ve done it since day one.

  22. Wow, that’s rough :(. I do what I love now and I make less than when I did what I hated (tax accounting). I also have more time to spend with my husband and pursue other interests. I don’t have benefits, nor am I sure what I will bring in from one month to the next. I wouldn’t trade it for anything 🙂

  23. Great post Stefanie. Sometimes I wonder whether it is better to not experience things which you really enjoy but can’t always get access to. Doing something you love then not being able to do it anymore is possibly worse than not ever knowing about it in the first place

  24. I’m lucky that I actually make relatively good money for my field and my level of experience, but it does hurt ot know that there isn’t much room to increase that. I don’t think you should have to be miserable every day but I don’t believe in starving for passion’s sake and I think most of us just want a happy medium. Struggling with money definitely cuts into your happiness, even if your job is awesome.

  25. It’s interesting isnt it? People think performers, stars in theater, on television, or on the radio are paid handsomely. We all sacrifice for the jobs we love.

  26. I can imagine that that’s a really tough world financially–I love performing myself, but I wouldn’t choose it as a career because I don’t think I’m tough enough for all that I know goes with it! You all who persevere through everything–that’s hardcore.

  27. I feel like all creative fields are suffering, and everyone who has a job or who aspires a career in a ‘art-related’ industry, will be able to relate. I was shocked when I graduated college, that I’d make less money than I got paid for a summer job at a factory. And with all due respect for people who do daily what I did that summer, but it was numbing, boring work.
    Part of my decision not to aim for a job in design in NYC, is because the hours are long and the pay is low – even with +10 years of experience.

  28. I admire you for doing what you love. Imagine yourself working in some office keyboarding for a paycheck for the rest of your life. It seems like such a waste. I wish more of us (including myself) were like you. I hope you get a big break. You deserve it. That really sucks about the union.

  29. I’m doing what I love but if I had to do it all over again, I would have had an emergency fund for the business and for my personal life. I would also be debt free. When there are low in the economy or your business hits a low, it is good you have extra money to rely on.

  30. Such a great post. The extremes of doing what you love for little pay vs. great pay but being unfulfilled is unfortunately the common choice. As you said, focusing on a lifestyle you love is more freeing that limiting yourself to those two extremes.

  31. Really enjoyed this article. We have been told follow our dreams from young ages. Yet we define ourselves by the job title we hold. I have recently realized we are not our jobs, we are who we are. Sadly many of us do not know who we are as we have been defined by the job. I like how your post talks about selecting the job that can allow you to live the lifestyle you want. After all this is what matters most!

  32. There is definitely a need to draw some form of line and make some form of decision in terms of what your time is worth. As people we tend to only have time as our money maker, its our asset like a business would have machinery if you will. Therefore we need to do something that maximizes our utility. Want to do something you love? That’s okay to a point but you need to make sure it is paying the bills and allowing you to live comfortably also.

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