The 9-to-5 grind isn’t for everyone, but striking out on your own can be daunting, particularly if you’re trying to parlay a particular passion into a paycheck.
While terms like “coolest” or “best” certainly are subjective, we wanted to find people who had successfully followed the old adage: Do something you love and you’ll never work another day in your life. From artists to aerialists, drummers to biologists, these folks have eschewed the standard office job and found a career path uniquely suited to their interests and lifestyles. We spoke with them about how they made it happen, and asked for advice they’d give to others interested in doing the same.
Image Credit: Garrett Olivery / The Brooklyn Brewery.
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1. Wildlife biological technician
Some are drawn to the outdoors early, but making a career out of a passion for nature is no easy feat. Janet Millard, 46, is a wildlife biological technician for the U.S. Forest Service in Leavenworth, Washington, conducting surveys of endangered animal populations and gathering data for state and federal agencies.
Millard started out in an office, working for Washington state’s Department of Transportation drafting engineering plans. It wasn’t until the local salmon population got listed as a threatened species that the DOT asked her to start doing biological assessments. But Millard had to move and take a pay cut in order to get her current job. “There are sacrifices in pay and lifestyle,” she said.
The work itself is demanding. Millard said anyone working for her has to be diligent, smart, motivated and physically fit. As a wildlife technician, she often hikes alone up and down steep hills. She advised others to “find what you’re passionate about,” even though “you have to be willing to do the work that you don’t like and you have to be able to do it well.”
Image Credit: Janet Millard.
2. Lego model builder
Flynn DeMarco, 52, and his husband, Richard Board, were just looking for something fun to do when they bought a Lego set on a whim. With their backgrounds in theater, they quickly started imagining and building small sets out of Legos and posting them to Flickr and Instagram. DeMarco even entered a contest and became one of five people selected to work with Lego.
Now, DeMarco, who lives in Oakland, California, teaches Lego engineering to elementary school students, and he and his husband run an Instagram account, trickybricks, where they showcase their incredible creations and take commissions. They combine Legos and engineering to make masterful, moving sets.
“Whatever it is that you decide you want to do, work on it every day, even if it’s not work that you get to show publicly,” DeMarco said. Even now, DeMarco sets new challenges for himself to hone his skills. He also advised engaging with others in your field, as well as any admirers of your work. “People respond to that and they’re more likely to go look at more things that you’ve done.”
Image Credit: Flynn DeMarco.
3. Sushi instructor and Japan tour guide
One day more than 14 years ago, Carl Rosa of Houston went to a sushi restaurant. When he complimented the chef, he was told he had no idea what made the sushi good. “That’s when I started looking into it and realized that no one truly understands what sushi is at all,” Rosa said.
Rosa, now 52, embarked on a journey to understand. He started an organization that grew to include 17,000 members. He learned to make sushi and taught others or brought them on tours of Japan. His business eventually grew to the point that Rosa could leave his job as vice president for real estate with OrthioSynetics. But he says the transition was easy. “It was just a very slow, conscious choice,” he said.
Rosa said his most valuable quality as a tour guide is his subjectivity. “They want your opinion,” he said. “You give them what you believe is the most honest and accurate opinion you can and then you build a tour based on that.”
Image Credit: Carl Rosa.
4. Professional photographer
Tishy Bryant, 41, describes her transition from the corporate world into professional photography as “a leap of faith.” Bryant was working a corporate job when her daughter was born. She started taking photos and soon people were asking her to take pictures of their children, as well.
She started photographing children until her business, Tishy Photography, was sustainable. That’s when she took her leap of faith, moving to Beaumont, Texas, just outside Houston and taking photos for a local newspaper at football games. Bryant had to be adaptable, pivoting from the oversaturated market of newborns to the underserved high school seniors. In the four years since she went full-time with her photography, her business has grown to the point that she’s hired a staff member and gets booked out four months in advance. She said part of this success came from finding a niche.
Bryant advises people who want to do the same not to compare themselves to others. “Only compare yourself to an earlier version of yourself,” she said. “There’s enough business to go around for everyone,” so welcome the advice and camaraderie of others in your field. “I’m just very fortunate that I get to do what I love every day,” she said. “It makes my heart happy.”
Image Credit: Tishy Bryant.
5. Aerial instructor
Kim Zmolek, 45, of Seattle, was a restaurant owner and bartender when she decided to try something drastically different. “I was looking for a new type of physical activity,” she said of her transition into aerial acrobatics.
Zmolek has been an aerial coach in Seattle for four years now and trains students on silks, rope, sling, trapeze and more. Aerial is a physically demanding sport, but Zmolek said that from her first class “I immediately knew that it was a thing I needed to keep doing.”
“There’s always the most demand for people who can teach beginners,” she said. “Your best bet is to have a practice somewhere and get involved in any way you can.” She added that there is some hustle involved in marketing yourself and your skills, but “It’s the best job in the world.”
Image Credit: Warren Woo.
Yehudi Mercado, 45, of Burbank, California, always loved to draw, but it wasn’t until high school that he got into theater and writing. It was a combination of theater and art that eventually led to animation. Mercado started as a video game animator, but today is an independent artist who creates cartoons, graphic novels and more.
Mercado marketed himself at places like Comic-Con, where he used pizza boxes to package and sell his graphic novel about being a pizza delivery person. This creative tactic, and the strength of his work, got him noticed. “I sort of found a niche in the middle grade graphic novel,” he said.
Until recently, Mercado was working for others, doing his art at night and on the side. “It’s a grind,” Mercado said. “It has to be something in you that you need to do otherwise it’s too easy to give up.”
Image Credit: Yehudi Mercado.
7. Professional drummer
Although Lisa Pankratz, 51, of Austin, Texas, always loved music, only drumming truly spoke to her. Her father was always a drummer, so she got exposed early. Though she went to college to study English, as soon as she graduated she started playing music with anyone she could. “It basically just took off from there,” Pankratz said. The venerable drummer has since been written up in magazines like Modern Drummer and tours regularly with grammy-winning artist Dave Alvin.
For Pankratz, taking advantage of opportunities was crucial to her success. In high school she’d play with her father. In college, she’d drum in the basement of the dorm between classes. She said that after college, “I figured out that I was kind of fooling myself that I would do anything else.”
Pankratz says she still takes lessons. “I do think it’s important to pay attention to lots of different styles of music,” she said, as that gives a musician a broader base of knowledge. Constantly listening to those around her has contributed to her success. “Thank god I’m getting to do this and I’m pretty sure this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Pankratz said.
Image Credit: @dtkindlerphoto.
Garrett Oliver, 57, didn’t always love beer, which may come as a shock considering how passionate he is about it today as the brewmaster for The Brooklyn Brewery.
“The only beers around in those days were mass-produced lagers and I hated them,” Oliver said. “My first taste of beer was my uncle’s Miller High Life at age 12. That put me off beer for many years.
“The first one I liked was Guinness,” he continued. “But I didn’t generally like beer until I moved to England, traveled around Europe and discovered real beer…we didn’t have real beer in the States yet.”
Before he got into the brewing business, Oliver worked in broadcasting and film.
“I spent years working for HBO,” the Brooklyn resident said. “In the couple of years before getting into brewing, I ran local club nights, did some guerrilla film-making and worked at a law firm. I was, however, an enthusiastic amateur brewer and helped found the New York City Homebrewers Guild. My big break came when the British brewmaster of Manhattan Brewing Company (a large and very early brewpub in NYC) announced that his assistant was leaving. I asked for the job on the spot. That was 1989.”
Apart from the obvious joys of the business — getting to taste and make amazing beer — it’s the creation of new flavors and “getting to work with so many cool people in great places all over the world,” that Oliver says he loves most about his job.
While it’s a highly competitive industry, Oliver doesn’t necessarily think that should be a deterrent to people passionate about brewing.
“There are now 7,600 breweries just in the United States, and we are often ‘playing against monsters’ — the major international breweries have every intention of eating even the smallest brewer’s lunch, even if you’re just a little brewpub,” he said. “You’d better be good.”
Image Credit: Garrett Olivery / The Brooklyn Brewery.
9. Orchestra production manager
Hazelynne Meyer, 20, of Kitsap, Washington, has no musical background. “I tried piano when I was a kid but I was awful,” Meyer said. Yet today she makes sure the Poulsbo Community Orchestra in Poulsbo, Washington, runs smoothly all year round.
Meyer had previous experience as a theatrical stage manager in high school, but landed with an orchestra after responding to a one-day opportunity she assumed was volunteer. “Two weeks later a check came and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a job,'” she said. The orchestra asked her if she’d be willing to come back and that one day turned into two years and then into a full-time position where she coordinates reservations, crews and signage for the orchestra.
Meyer said anyone passionate about music looking to turn it into a career may want to start out as a board member for their local orchestra. “Be willing to help out,” Meyer said. When the orchestra is looking for a new employee, they’ll likely look close to home.
Image Credit: Hazelynne Meyer.
10. Cookbook author/food blogger
When Anna Francese Gass started writing down her mother’s recipes, she never imagined a career as a cookbook author. Soon friends were asking her to record their mothers’ recipes as well and Gass pitched her idea as a cookbook full of immigration stories and traditional recipes, “Heirloom Kitchen.”
Gass, 39, worked for insurance companies after college, but realized she wasn’t happy and wanted to focus on food, a tradition in her Italian family. Then she tried culinary school and worked as a recipe tester for Martha Stewart Living and Whole Foods before starting a food blog for fun. “Everything kind of led me to this job of taking people’s recipes from their heads and getting it on paper,” she said.
Gass, who now lives in New Canaan, Connecticut, said the blog resonated with a lot of people and her idea for a cookbook full of traditional recipes rarely written down took off. Heirloom Kitchen now has one of the top selling recipe books on Amazon.
She advised others to “have a very strong point of view,” as well as 25-30 strong recipes to feature. “It’s very important to have a unique, interesting idea because there’s a sea of cookbooks out there.”
Image Credit: Anna Gass.
11. Video game streamer
These days, people are making money by playing video games online while broadcasting on platforms such as Twitch. Will Overgard, 33, of Seattle, started out making YouTube videos before he worked for video game companies. There, he met and worked with streamers. When he left those companies and needed a new career himself, he therefore had all the know-how to strike out into streaming, starting a Twitch channel called Viking_Blonde where he gets to showcase a variety of games.
Overgard still commutes to work, broadcasting out of an arcade called GameWorks. He works off of a curated schedule of games and starts at the same time every day. Beyond that, he said he always had “an understanding of what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.”
He stressed the importance of a good community of viewers. “Engagement beats reach every time,” he said. “I still believe this form of content creation is less like yelling on a soap box and more like friends in a pub.” He said aspiring streamers should pay close attention to their metrics and strive for high engagement with viewers.
Image Credit: Kenley Cheung.
12. Comic book distribution
When Anne Bean, 34, of Seattle, started her comics distribution business, it was in direct response to a need she saw within the industry. Smaller and independent creators simply weren’t getting into stores the same way as the big comics. Now, she works in the Seattle and Puget Sound region connecting artists, creators, store owners and fans with her business, Emerald Comics Distro.
She said part of her inspiration came from her own passion; Bean is a creator herself. Before starting her own business, she worked in teaching jobs and school administration. Bean took advantage of a local program to learn the basics of starting a business, then went out and talked to as many local people in the industry as she could.
“I wasn’t sure what my business was going to look like at first,” Bean said, but she discovered a need in the comics community through her networking. She advises others to “analyze an industry and then find out where the gap is.” Once you discover that, “make something up.”
This article was produced and syndicated by MediaFeed.org.
Image Credit: Anne Bean.