Digital media constantly sells us the joyful illusion of having it all. From interviews with folk under 25 who have built up a successful podcast in their spare time, to social media posts that are awash with links to new projects being started up alongside a main career, it can be easy to believe that you’re ‘wasting’ your down-time if you’re not starting a YouTube channel or monetising your hobbies. No one wants to show that these things are actually quite hard to do, and so the representation we see always makes it look like we could have (should have?) done something similar ourselves.
It always starts off small. Maybe you make a fun thing in your spare time that people like the look of, and then you share a photo of it online and gain a bunch more social media followers. Soon, the pressure builds up to keep posting more regularly, so that the algorithm shows your content to at least some of those followers. People ask if they can buy that thing you made, so you make more of them so that you don’t have to sell the original. You share more photos and your following grows. You get invited onto a podcast to talk about it, and more people start to know you as The Person Who Made That Thing. You know you could never make a living making more of these things, but it’s fun and other people seem to like it, so you keep going and fill your spare time with it. Soon, you start to feel overwhelmed.
Even if you’re not a creative or a maker of some kind, social media has conditioned us into thinking that somehow more likes and comments means we’re better or more successful than we were before. Even without a brand to promote, seeing the notifications roll in can feel rewarding or validating. Back in my blog’s heyday, I’d get asked to review things that I wanted to own and I’d say yes even though the company didn’t actually pay me for writing the review. I thought doing it would boost my blog and that somehow that would be beneficial to me in the future. Of course, now we all know that you can’t pay the bills with ‘exposure’ and that ‘likes’ on social media never made anyone truly happy, so why do we still chase these things? Why do we continue to attempt to turn our hobbies into side hustles or take on more side projects? Why can’t a hobby just be a hobby?
When was the last time you did or made something just for the love of it? Enjoyed an experience without feeling the need to post about it on social media? I am extremely guilty of viewing every aspect of my life as ‘content’ and so I know how this gets you hooked. It might not even be a dopamine hit or an addiction, it’s just that we’re shown this as a way to live and it looks fun so we copy it. When it looks like everyone we know is starting a podcast, writing a book, selling their artwork, or turning trash into treasure to sell on Etsy, we start to believe that this is the norm. We can’t all love our jobs, or enjoy doing things that earn us enough money to live on, so lots of us tend to spend our spare time doing fun stuff. But when that spare time stuff is no longer fun, we need to sit back and ask what the benefit is. Is this something that will lead to a better paid or more fulfilling job, or is it no longer serving us?
In a recent interview, author Emma Gannon spoke about the pressure of this ‘success myth’ and how the impressive stuff often doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t fill the gap in your life that you thought it would.
“My Instagram feed looked full, busy and exciting. Friends were messaging me, saying, ‘you’re killing it’. What was the ‘it’ I was killing? My soul probably,” she says. […] “Without truly trying to figure out what we want – rather than what our friends, partner, family want – we will just blindly go along with what everyone else is telling us to do, living someone else’s dream. Society expects us to be constantly achieving, and I think a lot of people are exhausted, quite frankly.”
Okay so, to recover from her addiction to success, Gannon quit her podcast and wrote a book which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as a strategy for dialling back a busy life (although perhaps that’s what relaxation looks like to a bestselling author?), but she does have a good point about taking a break. Perhaps quitting some of this additional stuff would actually be an act of self care. Why not look at what you spend your time doing and ask yourself two questions: “does it pay the bills?” and “does it make me happy?” If the answer to both is “no”, do yourself a favour and quit that thing. If the job that pays your bills makes you miserable, using your spare time to work out an exit strategy and apply for new jobs is going to be far more helpful to your overall wellbeing than putting pressure on yourself to monetise your hobby. Look at what you’ve said yes to and see how much of it you could actually say no to. Even just for a while. Saying yes to more things might have helped you to step out of your comfort zone, but sometimes comfort can be a marker of success too.