When Hobbies Become Jobs

What is professionalism?

Is it when you act like you know your shit?

Is it when other people acknowledge that you know your shit?

Is “acknowledgement” all it takes to label someone as a professional? To begin with, what does this “acknowledgement” thing encompass anyway?

Personally, I feel that (and act accordingly) professionalism is non-negotiable as soon as someone’s paid me to do something. Whether it’s several thousand bucks at a day job, or 5 bucks on the street for taking a Polaroid photograph of a random stranger. Money demands a certain attitude — both from the payer and the payee — called “professionalism”. Without it, all transactions fall apart.

So I suppose the correct question here is this: When is it the right time or place to ask for money in exchange for a service? To go a level deeper, When is it OK for one to even consider offering a service?

Is it when one has academic background in the said service?

How about “life-experience”?

If one doesn’t have an academic background, then how does one gain said experience?

Did the chicken come first or the egg?

One can spend ages contemplating such unnecessary things. Here’s what I do know:

Years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I picked up photography as a hobby. I wasn’t a “professional”. Hobbies are not things people do professionally after all *rolls eyes at my past, naive self*.

I got into it fast, and soon, I felt the need to show off. But Instagram was still a thing of the future back in those days. So I decided to brush up on my HTML and CSS skills. I wasn’t a website person; my knowledge of HTML and CSS was a result of an ex-boyfriend’s rather pestering nature. I didn’t know what a CMS was or that there was a thing called WordPress. So I made a website from scratch. It looked awful in hindsight, but back then, I was rather proud of my accomplishments.

Fast forward a year and with my then knowledge of film photography, I proceeded to sell off my digital camera and buy a couple of old-school film cameras. Not only that, I started a quarterly film photography magazine all on my own. And as per usual, I proceeded to teach myself all about magazines including layout design, a whole new program called Adobe inDesign, various print terminologies, etc.

Fast forward another year and a half and I decided to shut down the magazine because it was getting out of hand, and I was also a new graduate without a job, bumming around in New York City. I picked up “gigs” on Craigslist whenever possible to make ends meet. The hustle was real, but here’s what’s interesting: my academic background was in electrical engineering, and as I was spending my days in NYC, happily depressed over being jobless, the gigs that I did pick up were all in things that had nothing to do with engineering.

A roommate learned that I knew how to code, so she paid me a couple of hundred bucks to make a website for her. I saw someone looking for an InDesign savvy to create a booklet. I wasn’t “savvy” per se, but I knew how to use the program, so I reached out and even got the gig. A newbie music band had a tiny budget for a photo-shoot, and since beggars can’t be choosers, I picked up that gig as well… and many more like these.

In short, I was running around doing anything and everything I knew how to do, making peanuts off of temp gigs here and there, somehow managing to pay rent and bills while living off of my roommate’s potatoes. She was generous because she knew she couldn’t have afforded another web designer/developer in NYC for as low as $250 bucks (that’s how much she paid me for a completely custom-made website, built entirely from scratch.)

In retrospect, it was one of the happiest times of my life!

Before I knew it, people were paying me to do things I never knew would make me money. These people didn’t care whether or not I went to school for the skills I professed. They cared about one thing and one thing only: quality and timely delivery. Which, I’m now proud to say, I did.

I remember someone I had known for a short time introducing me to their friends as an “engineer and a photographer”. I was familiar with the “engineer” bit because I went to school for it; paid the big bucks to learn the skills that I did. But photography? When did I become a photographer?

Unbeknownst to me, I had in fact become a photographer as soon as someone paid me to take their photos! And before I knew it, I wasn’t only a professional photographer, but also a web designer, a web developer, a print designer/layout designer, graphic designer, writer, blogger, etc.

I was a jack of all trades!

But people don’t care for such terminologies, do they? Most people only care for paying or being paid. The rest is redundancy. When someone pays me to, say, design a brochure, they don’t have time to deal with my insecurities as to whether or not I’m qualified as a brochure designer.

Being an electrical engineer had its virtues. I was trained to work hard and have a can-figure-out-anything-and-everything attitude. So, even when I had no idea how to do something, I didn’t worry. I was always confident that I could figure it out, and so I did.

Master or jack… no one gave a crap. People paid me, and I delivered. Until I finally landed that dream job in engineering, that’s how I supported myself. But the things I learned at that time will likely stay with me forever. Over the years I have done many things. Even when I was working as an engineer, I continued to design things and take photos. And with the financial security of a corporate job, I finally had the time to sit down and think about things I hadn’t thought about before. Things such as whether or not I was a true photographer or a true designer.

What I realized is that essentially, everything comes down to this: when that hip-hop band paid me a hundred bucks to take their photos, to them, I wasn’t just “an engineer who takes photos as a hobby”. I was their photographer. To the artists who paid me a thousand bucks to design a 20-page booklet, I was a print layout designer and they expected work that was worth a thousand bucks.

What I’m getting to is this: you are what you do. Terms like “hobbyist”, “amateur”, are words we play with inside our heads. If and when we decide to make money off of a certain skill that we have, we become professionals, no matter the amount we’re being paid. And professionals get things done. Professionals don’t question their own abilities to get said things done. They simply do. When they don’t know how to, they go and learn and then they get things done. And when they deliver, they’re not amateurs doing hobby stuff; they’re professionals keeping true to their promise of quality and timely delivery.