The well-worn phrase “Do what you love and the money will follow” leaves a lot to be desired. Even if you could get paid to watch episodes of LOST (you can’t), you’d probably yearn for more rewarding work.
There is a marked difference between things you love that could make money and things you love that won’t. As a general rule, if it helps you enter a ‘Flow state’, it’s a winner. If it doesn’t, it won’t make for gratifying or lucrative work.
‘Flow’ (see Wikipedia page), a psychological phenomenon, is how you feel when performing a task that absorbs 100% of your focus. Time seems to run faster while in a flow state – hours can pass without notice because you are too focused to care about the passing of time. If you stop and think about it, I’m sure you can think of one activity that makes you feel this way, whether it’s writing a blog post, web design, exercising or developing new business ideas.
To enter a flow state while performing a task, the following criteria need to be met:
1. You must be challenged, but not too much. You’d be unlikely to enter a flow state as a beginner guitarist trying to learn Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’. Simply eeking out each note, let alone arranging them in the correct rhythm, would be extremely difficult and frustrating. You’d quickly want to bail out and try ‘Ode to Joy’ instead. Thinking about other tasks instead of the one you’re doing is not compatible with flow. On the other hand, a talented guitarist is not going to enter a flow state playing ‘Ode to Joy’ by the book. There’s no challenge in it, so her mind is likely to wander and not achieve the 100% focus required for flow.
2. You must be doing creative mental work. This includes problem solving, strategic thinking and thinking ‘on your feet’.
3. You must see great value in the work. I find my monthly accounts challenging but not too challenging to do, but this doesn’t mean I enjoy them. To find flow, the task you’re doing must have personal value to you.
No Flow, No Happiness
Psychologists have found that regularly achieving a state of flow is one of the primary determinants of happiness.
It follows, then, that the best possible way to make a living is to make money by doing tasks that put you into a flow state. The greatest thing is, because these tasks require specific skills to complete – skills that you have – ‘flow’ is the perfect way to separate things you love that people might pay you for (they require skill) versus things you love that are extremely hard to get paid for (watching LOST, which only requires a television!)
If you don’t feel that any of your current skills have monetary value to someone else, searching for ‘flow’ is an excellent way to discover new skills that you will love practicing. If I find myself 100% focused and losing track of time when reading beginner-level articles on stock trading, this is a signal that the skill is worth more investigation.
Two Ways to Fill a Life Missing Flow
If you’re interested in blogging, you’re probably familiar with the ‘Blog Profits Blueprint‘ school of thought, aimed at creating sources of advertising and affiliate income that require only a few hours of maintenance each day. Ideas around passive income and The Four-Hour Work Week come from the same angle – that you should minimize income ‘work’ to leave more time for non-work activities that help you achieve flow.
While possible, this setup is extremely difficult to achieve – and perhaps personal experience has shown you that! If working 2 hours a day on income generating activities and earning $5,000 a month, you still need to earn over $80 per hour that you work. Someone earning $5,000 a month with a four-hour workweek would need to earn over $300 an hour.
To me, this seems unnecessarily complicated and difficult. If the aim is to minimize ‘work’ to make time for activities that put you into ‘flow’, wouldn’t it make more sense to seek a scenario where your ‘work’ and ‘flow tasks’ were one and the same?
It’s true that you could never spend 100% of work time in ‘flow’, unless invoicing and clearing your inbox are passions. But nor could you make a living from AdSense and affiliates without spending some amount of time on boring admin tasks.
The laws of probability also make a case for earning money from your flow tasks. Working 40 hours a week doing tasks you find flow-inducing (and assuming all hours a billable), you can make $5,000 a month earning about $31 an hour. If you’re ‘working’ 2 hours a day and making money from affiliate marketing, you need to earn roughly 250% of that amount per hour. If you’re doing a 4-hour work week you need to earn a whopping 10x that amount per hour!
Needless to say, there are a lot more ordinary people earning $31 an hour (and more) as freelancers than there are people earning $80 an hour as bloggers and affiliate marketers, or $300 an hour as passive income gurus. Sure, they do exist, and congratulations to them, but only a very small percentage of people who try to lead the ‘passive income’ lifestyle succeed.
The biggest irony I see is people who work thousands of hours to set up modest passive income streams to support themselves while they pursue unpaid ‘flow’ activities using skills that have a going rate of $50 – $100 an hour! The could have earned more and saved months or even years of their lives making money from their skill directly.
Is Passive Income Really the Recipe for Happiness?
In an ideal world we could work 1 hour a day and spend the rest of the time at home programming apps or playing piano or whatever else puts us into flow. In reality, when left to our own devices we’ll often pick ‘junk food’ tasks over flow tasks because flow tasks are challenging while junk food tasks provide instant gratification. Examples of junk food tasks are things like aimlessly browsing YouTube, watching bad mid-day television or taking naps. As psychologist Dan Gilbert has shown, humans are often very bad at predicting and doing what really makes us happy. Without external motivators we may spend the rest of our day watching re-runs of Family Guy rather than working on the blog design of our dreams.
Instead, try adding income and reputation to the mix and it becomes much easier to motivate yourself to consistently perform tasks that put you into flow. The person with only self-imposed pressures to create their dream blog design will probably finish three months after the person being paid $60 an hour with a Monday deadline.
Lastly, working for ‘flow’ is a fantastic opportunity to become a genuine expert at something. Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of hard work before someone can call themselves an expert. Dabble in something on evenings and weekends for a total of 10 hours a week and you can gather 500 hours towards expertise each year (I’ve subtracted 20 hours a year for practice time missed due to unforseen events – this figure is being very generous though). Keep at it for 20 years and voila, you might just be an expert.
Contrast this with 35 hours a week of practice (say, in Flash game design), and you can hit that 10,000 hour mark in about 5 years and 9 months – roughly 1/4 of the time. If you’re being paid only the average rate for a Flash programmer (about $50 an hour) you’ve earned a total of $500,000 acquiring your expertise, instead of the $0 earned practicing in non-work time.
The Best Way to Make a Living from Blogging Is…
Selling a service that puts you into ‘flow’ is the best way for most people to make money from blogging. Even if you don’t have a skill that can be easily commodified yet, learning a new one will be much easier than making thousands of dollars each month from advertising and affiliate programs. The latter requires just as much practice and may never be rewarded at all.
While being an expert in a niche is valuable, being an expert in a professional skill is even more valuable. (Being an expert in both is better, and that’s what I hope to teach you.)
If Google decides it doesn’t like you, if AdSense changes drastically, if you lose your mojo and traffic dries up, so can your income if it is solely based on advertising and affiliate sales. But the skills you have, with continual practice, will last forever.
This is a topic I want to discuss much more. I feel that there’s an over-abundance of information on how to make a pittance with advertising and affiliate programs, but very few credible sources of information on how to earn a good living with a freelance business fed through your blog. I’ve done it, and I’m confident I can teach any person to do the same. That being said, I know this lifestyle is not everyone’s cup of tea and for that reason I won’t be devoting a lot of time to the topic on this blog. Instead I’ll be creating a newsletter on this topic, so only people who want to learn will receive the content.
I know some of you have been trying to earn an income through blog ads and affiliate sales and are getting tired of not being rewarded. I know some of you are interested in freelancing but unsure of how to make money from your skills or where to start. I know some of you are already freelancers but would like to get more clients, charge more and ween yourself off local work so that you can take your business anywhere. I’m confident the newsletter will teach you how to do all these things – and it will also be fun for me to try something different!
Stay tuned 🙂