Finding Your Purpose in the Gig Economy
“The gig economy is empowerment. This new business paradigm empowers individuals to better shape their own destiny and leverage their existing assets to their benefit.”
- John McAfee
This month, we’ve looked at how your purpose, skills, and lifestyle connect in your perfect career. That’s great for some people, but what if you haven’t found “the one” yet? I get it, you’re waiting around to find a job that does it all for you. The good news is, we are living in a gig economy, meaning, you don’t need a traditional job anymore and you can find your perfect connection in multiple jobs. Working part-time with a side hustle, or multiple gigs that cover your Lowest Livable Lifestyle (LLL), can fulfill the bottom two circles (skill and money) on the Perfect Career Venn Diagram. You can fill your remaining time with projects you care about. They’re what I call “dream projects,” because these ventures fulfill your purpose.
If you add it up:
Your Main Gig
(a full- or part-time job)
A Side Hustle
(a part-time job or money-making entrepreneurial project)
A Dream Project
(something you do for fun and hope to one day have as your perfect career)
A Distributed Perfect Career
(one step closer to finding “the one”)
Gigs and side hustles aren’t anything new. What is new is the culture shift in the last decade that wove odd jobs and profitable hobbies into the fabric of our economy. To learn more about how we shifted, let’s take a look at the father of the modern-day side hustle.
The Father of Modern Hustle
“You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.”
- Chris Guillebeau, A Brief Guide to World Domination
After submitting his master’s thesis to the University of Washington in 2008, Chris Guillebeau was faced with a career decision. He could accept an offer to a PhD program or spend more time on his side gig: a travel-hack and change-the-world (while changing yourself) blog. In his book, The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris reflects on his decision. After spending $32,000 and two years on his program, a grand total of three people read his thesis. Around the same time, he published a 29-page manifesto on his blog titled: A Brief Guide to World Domination: How to Live a Remarkable Life in a Conventional World (and other important goals). In the first six months, more than 100,000 people downloaded it. With these figures in mind, Chris decided to follow the path that would influence the most people: his blog, even though it meant having a non-traditional job in the form of several smaller revenue streams instead of one large revenue stream. In the last 10 years, his life has been filled with meaning and adventure. He has visited every country in the world and is proud to have never held a “real job.” Chris shares his story (and offers tips to those who want to live like him) in his books The $100 Startup and Side Hustle, which is also the name of his daily podcast. His success has inspired many to break away from the safety of a “golden handcuff” nine to five J-O-B to pursue gigs that give them more control and flexibility, use skills they enjoy growing, and have enough time to spend on the things they care about. As a result, we have now become an economy that relies on gigs and many of us are using a gig service on a regular basis.
Gigs & Side Hustles
“’Unreasonable,’ ‘unrealistic,’ and ‘impractical’ are all words used to marginalize a person or idea that fails to conform with conventionally expected standards.”
- Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-Conformity
Let’s start with the obvious first question, what is a gig?
Words like “gig” and “side hustle” are being used more often in many contexts, so exact definitions haven’t been pinned down yet. As you can see from a Google scan of texts dating back to 1800, words like “gig” and “hustle” were popular about 100 years ago, but their application was likely used in a different context. In our current culture, the broad strokes are easy to see.
Based on what I’ve read and my own experiences, the definition for gig is broader than side hustle. Basically, a gig is anything someone is hired to do for a short-term project. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t even know how to define it yet (“there is no official definition of the ‘gig economy’—or, for that matter, a gig.” Source), but in a recent article, they defined it as: “a single project or task for which a worker is hired, often through a digital marketplace, to work on demand.” Examples might include anything from freelance graphic design to your neighbor asking you to help them build a fence or watch their cats while they’re on vacation.
A side hustle is more consistent. It is a gig you do intentionally and repeatedly and show a profit. In Guillebeau’s book, Side Hustle, he is clear that you have to be making money immediately. There is planning involved, but you should already have an income or customers. (If you are still developing the idea, you probably have a dream project, which we’ll cover in a few paragraphs.) Side hustles take the gig up a notch and make it more professional, mainly for repeat business. So, let’s take our examples up a notch. Instead of doing graphic design projects for friends or friends of friends, you set up an account on freelancer.com, target customers looking for web design, and commit to three projects a week. Instead of helping a neighbor build a fence on a Saturday, your side hustle might be building fences in your neighborhood on the weekend. And instead of feeding your friend’s cat one time while they’re vacationing in Cancun, you expand your services to include pet sitting and dog walking, and you make a profile on care.com/pet-sitting-jobs.
I have plenty of friends who, in addition to their full-time job, deliver food on the weekends, bartend, teach guitar lessons, tutor (including online tutoring), teach online (ELS and full video courses), edit books or blogs (like my editor, hi Josh!), drive for ride-sharing companies, rent their car by the day, sell home-cooked meals, rent a room in their house by the day, sell crafts online, pick up graphic design work online—the list goes on.
(For more ideas, visit https://www.sidehustlenation.com/ideas/)
Some friends rely only on gigs or side hustles to cover their LLL. This means they rely on two or more revenue streams to cover all their bills. They do this so they can support an additional, less reliable, but more fun/fulfilling revenue stream. Looking at the Perfect Career Venn diagram, the gigs we’ve talked about likely fall into the golden handcuffs overlap of money and skills, because for many, it’s work they can do and get paid for but it doesn’t support their purpose.
The third revenue stream is in the volunteer overlap (skills and purpose), because the dollar/hour rate is much lower, and right now it’s not possible to survive on it as your only income. These are my friends who write books (yes, even my friends who publish with big-name publishers need jobs, gigs, or hustles), are in bands, sell on Etsy, are stand-up comics, are small publishers, actors, filmmakers, YouTube political commentators, and pie cooks. One day, they hope they will hit The NY Times best sellers list, headline a major music festival, sell a TV series, become a cable political commentator ... you get the picture. But they’re not there yet. In the meantime, the gig-lifestyle allows them the freedom to choose what they want to do and when. If their band goes on tour, they stop the gig for X-number of weeks. When they get back from tour and need some money, they put in longer hours at their gig to make up the difference.
If you look at your life, you may be surprised to realize you already have a gig or side hustle. If you do (or have one in the works), the next big decision is deciding how much time to spend on it. How much time do you spend on a gig that generates income, and how much time should you spend on a project you care about that doesn’t pay (yet) but you hope will eventually turn into your perfect career?
“Though during his [Franz Kafka] lifetime he could not make a decent living, he will now keep generations of intellectuals both gainfully employed and well-fed.”
- Hannah Arendt, philosopher and political theorist
Franz Kafka worked full-time investigating workplace accidents and helped his father run their family store. His third gig, what Kafka is remembered for, is his fiction writing, and he diligently wrote in his spare time. Notable books include The Trial, which was adapted by Orson Welles in his 1962 film, The Metamorphosis, and a story titled A Hunger Artist, which heavily influenced the cultural persona of a “starving artist.” Not surprisingly, his life resembled the stories he wrote: a character who is trying their best and barely getting by; and then, out of the blue, something terrible happens, and the character never gets out of the rut they were stuck in*. His life was true to his writing, because in true Kafka form, he only became famous after his best friend (who was supposed to destroy his writing) published his works posthumously.
Kafka wasn’t only a writer (an unsuccessful one until years after his death), in addition to the meager income he saw from his writing, he also had a full-time job and a side hustle. His writing was only a dream project to his nine-to-five job and family store side hustle. He was an artist who didn’t make much money from his art, but he was by no means starving—though it might have felt like it, because he wished his writing would sustain his lifestyle. If this is you and you are only relying on your art for an income and cannot cover your expenses, you may want to pick up another gig.
The goal of any dream project is for it to one day become profitable, so it becomes your main gig**. Until that time, it has to share your attention with other gigs that are more profitable. You can think about it this way: the gigs you do explicitly for money fund your LLL. You need an LLL so you can do your dream project. Basically, your gigs are funding your dream project. Even if you never make any money at it, the experience of doing it is worthwhile.
As long as you are honest with yourself and identify what is a gig, what is a J-O-B, and what is a dream project, you will be able to support your LLL and have a fulfilling life chasing after your dream project. Unhappiness comes when you confuse your purpose-fulfilling gig with your money paying gig. One makes you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself and the other is an exchange of time for money. Expecting your purpose gig to give you the same benefits as your money gig (and vice versa) causes frustration and wasted energy.
I Don’t Have Time for It.
“…it wasn’t unusual for writers like Trollope and Dickens to write forty or more books over a career—while keeping a day job. You sat down and you wrote and then you were done. Starting in the 1950s, though, when writing became godlike, when creating the great American novel had a lot of kamiwaza associated with it, the drinking started and so did the blocking. It was easier to talk about making art than it was to actually do it.”
- Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception
Sure you do. You have a lot of time. If you feel stretched to your limits, I’d ask you to critically look at what you are spending your time on. Too often, people equate movement and commotion with productivity. Treading water is not as productive as swimming, and both take about the same amount of effort.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) wrote an essay titled On the Shortness of Life nearly two thousand years ago, and its wisdom is just as applicable now. Seneca writes:
“It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing has passed away. So it is: the life we are given isn't short but we make it so; we're not ill provided but we are wasteful of life.”
If you feel like you don’t have enough time, consider evaluating your priorities. Laura Vanderkam, author of the book 168 Hours, suggests tracking your time for an entire week (168 hours) in 15-minute intervals. When you write down what you’re doing every 15 minutes, you realize how much time you spend on other things instead of the task you should be doing. Things like checking social media, talking with colleagues, going to unproductive meeting, writing long emails that really only need a sentence or two, reading the news headlines, watching your tea brew, or completely spacing out. When you are deliberate with your focus and use your 168 hours wisely, you can come off to others as superhuman. The secret? We are all capable of managing multiple gigs and dream projects. People who know how to use their time wisely are only impressive in relation to the high percentage of people who live reactionary lives, following one stimulus to the next.
Here are two examples of normal people (like you) who do a lot in the same amount of time you have.
One of the most influential people in my life works at a huge tech company, full-time (hustle). He also has his own company (part side hustle, part dream project). Up until recently, he was the brewmaster at a Seattle brewery (side hustle). He also is a supportive husband, father, and grandfather. And he takes time to mentor people in all stages of their career, from just starting out to making transitions into leadership positions. He has also written a handful of books and is currently working on his next one (side hustle). Hours/week? 168.
I have a friend who is in his late 20s who co-owns a production company and a marketing company, and recently spent six months renovating a new studio space in St. Paul MN. He shoots weddings and music videos in his free time (gigs) and periodically teaches workshops in his studio (a side hustle). He is teaching himself how to code so he can understand how to give directions to a team building an app (dream project) and is working on a pitch to venture capitalists for a new idea that will be a side hustle to his side hustle. Hours/week? 168.
Productivity and living deliberately is a topic I will be exploring in the next few months. For now, I hope your take-away is that you can do it too. Don’t start thinking each side-hustle is the same as one full-time job—it’s not. As soon as you start thinking your life is busy and unmanageable, it will become so. You can immediately eliminate waste by cutting out video streaming services (or, what my friend I just mentioned calls “Netflix and die”) and by cutting the time you spend on social media to one 15-minute session/day. If you still think you are too busy, set an alarm on your phone and track what you are doing every 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, ask yourself, is what I’m doing productive or wasteful? Even if you only track for one day, you will see how much time you really have.
* Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, is about Gregor Samsa, an underpaid, overworked traveling salesman who is still living at home with his parents. He wakes up one morning and finds that he has been turned into a cockroach. Gregor loses his job and his family is afraid of him. Gregor doesn’t leave his room and is so depressed he stops eating the food his sister brings him. He dies and is found by the cleaning woman. She pokes him with a broom and yells, “It’s kicked the bucket.” Mrs. Samsa (Gregor’s mom) tells her not to worry about the rubbish in that room, and that it will be taken care of. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sama shift their focus to their daughter, who has grown into a voluptuous young woman, and they set out to find a good husband for her. The end. Read it here. (What young misfit wouldn’t love this story?)
** Elizabeth Gilbert was a bestselling author before her massive success with Eat, Pray, Love. She had written three books, all of them were published by major publishing houses, all were positively reviewed by the New York Times, and one was nominated for the National Book Award. She kept her day job until Eat, Pray, Love became a #1 NY Times best seller for several weeks because (in her own words): “…I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life.” Sounds like a good balance between job and dream project.
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Guillebeau, C. (2017). Side hustle: From idea to income in 27 days. New York: Crown Business.
Kafka, F., & Harman, M. (2008). Amerika: The missing person: A new translation, based on the restored text. Toronto: Random House of Canada.
McAfee, J. (2016, April 27). John McAfee: The war on the gig economy has turned AirBnb and Uber into a legislative bloodbath. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/john-mcafee-war-gig-economy-has-turned-airbnb-uber-into-legislative-bloodbath-1557107
Stach, R., & Frisch, S. L. (2005). Kafka, the decisive years. Orlando: Harcourt.
Torpey, E., & Hogan, A. (2016, May). Working in a gig economy : Career Outlook. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2016/article/what-is-the-gig-economy.htm
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt