The Solo Hustle Isn't For Everyone, But It Might Be For You
By Cory Allen
One of the things people ask me a lot is how they can “do their own thing” for a living. I guess people ask me that because it’s what I do, and they want to do it too. This topic seems to be one people are equally curious and confused about. So, I decided putting together a guide would be helpful for those that are considering turning their passion into a living.
People think that if they could turn their passion into their living that their life would be a dream. And, it could be. But it could also be a nightmare. There is much more to living the solo life than one might imagine. Most of which can only be known through experience.
What I share here is how I identified an entry point into being a professional Cory, helpful things I learned along the way, the realistic aspects of living a self-reliant professional life, and honest questions one should ask themselves.
I wrote this article to help you get oriented so you can work your way towards living the life you want. The fundamental pointers that follow will give you the upper hand. As a part of that, I also shed light on some hard truths of self-reliance. This will further prepare you for what lies ahead or make you realize you're happy working for someone else.
It would be effortless to extend this topic into an entire book. For the purpose of this article, I included the bare-bones: enough for you to taste the spirit of the grind.
How I Knew
You have to seek an independent professional life. Not because you want it, but because you need it. Every day was torture back when I was working a day job. I would wake up and feel like my insides were tearing like a piece of construction paper. But it wasn’t a resistance to working. In fact, I love working. Working is one of the few things that makes me happy and overpowers the infinite echo of the human condition. What was tearing was my will. I could feel in every atom in my body that I was meant to be doing “my own thing” for a living. Each day that I wasn’t, my soul ripped a little more.
It was never a question if I was going to make my own way. It was only a question of how. My passion for becoming professionally independent raged from my chest. All day at my job I felt like a starving lion in a cage with a limping gazelle right on the other side of the bars. The hunger controlled my daily focus. I had to get out and become a professional Cory.
Another way I knew I’d never be happy working for someone else is because I have a natural resistance to authority. Being threatened that a stranger will terminate my income if I don’t do, say, or appear when they tell me to runs against my instincts. It sounds and feels like a hostage situation. Screw that. I need the freedom to die by my own sword.
There was no other option. It was crystal clear that I had to find my own way. And I believed that I could. That brings us to a valuable point. You have to believe in yourself. You have to look in the mirror and unflinchingly believe that you are capable of figuring out every challenge you face and that you will. There is no if. There is only how.
Maintaining a mindset of self-belief that is cast in iron is 80% of the challenge. The rest is vision and creativity.
Do you think you know? Or do you know?
Having unwavering self-belief doesn’t mean you don’t feel a little freaked out about heading off into the wild. Everyone does and should. I know I did. It’s a sign that you care. The mindset of self-belief is when you feel the fear, but trust yourself to keep walking into the darkness.
Find your starting point
I wanted to be smart about which path I chose to make my own way. Nothing empties the energy tank like dumping a bunch of effort into the wrong thing and having to start over. To protect against this, I came up with some criteria to help identify exactly where I should jump in. These are the three questions I asked myself and why:
1. What am I naturally good at?
This one is golden if you want to crush it. Here’s why: no matter what you decide to do for a living, there are going to be many other people trying to do the same thing. Figuring out what you’re naturally good at will give you an advantage over other people in the industry. I could train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu twelve hours a day for the rest of my life, but Conor McGregor will always put me to sleep in seconds. He will always be better because he's a fighter by nature.
I’ve always loved music. When I was born, I rode out of the hospital blasting The Message by Grandmaster Flash (hey, it was 1982). I started playing guitar as a kid and by the time I was in my late teens I was producing music on my computer. That passion grew and I spent most of my time composing experimental electronic music.
Actually, I was possessed. In my early twenties, I would go to work in a bookstore, come back to my apartment, and work on music until 4 AM. I'd crank along with laser focus until I fell asleep with my head on the computer keyboard. I would wake up four hours later, go to work, come home, and do it all over again. For years. I'd sit down at work and sleep behind a bookshelf for 2-3 minute intervals to stay conscious. And I never questioned if it was worth it.
My music had circulated a bit by my mid-twenties. Friends started asking me if I could make the production quality of their music sound like mine. I polished up my friends' music for free because I enjoyed doing it. Word spread. Strangers started getting in touch and asking if I’d clean up their records for a hundred bucks. It didn't feel like work. I enjoyed making music sound a certain way.
This made me realize I had a natural talent for music production.
2. How can I make the most money in the shortest amount of time?
Freedom was a big factor for me in wanting to work for myself. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not a fan of people telling me what to do or when to do it. Working for yourself can enable you to set up your life in a way that works best for you, instead of someone else.
To be clear: by "freedom" I don’t mean that I take time off from working. In reality, I’m never not working during the week. But I do work in shifting amounts of intensity level. Sometimes I work at an average human pace and sometimes I do what I call burning white hot. My freedom allows me to spend huge chunks of energy when inspiration is running high and be more paced when inspiration is average.
My answer to the question of time-compressed earning was specialization. If you look at any job market, you can see that specialists are the highest earners. Why? Because they are special. They have chosen a specific thing that is challenging for the average person and become great at it. Specialists are always in demand since they're among the few that can do what they do and do it well. The final and most important piece of this is that someone who is in high demand can charge a lot more for their time.
There are a few approaches to being able to earn more in less time. One is to work as much as possible and sack away as much money as you can. That works for some people, but squeezing every cent out of a day is not the most interesting thing in life to me. I like flexibility in my days. Earning more in less time allows you to still make a good living, but do it faster. That way, you’ll have more time to do other things you love and not get burned out.
3. What is something you can’t not do?
When you figure out what you’re naturally good at, the chances are high that you’re already doing it a lot without thinking about it. A person’s natural talents tend to feed themselves. One enjoys practicing their talent because they are good at it, and one is good at their talent because they practice it.
You are going to have to do what you choose to make a living at for a lot longer each week than you might realize. So, you better like what you choose or else you’ll be resistant to doing it. That will challenge your drive and tenacity. And having your drive challenged every day, or even every week, will turn your life into torture.
Identifying something that you enjoy doing so much that you can’t help but do it will give you a major leg up in the professional long haul grind.
How I worked it out
This will look different for each person, but here’s how I matched all my criteria and came up with a starting point. As I mentioned above, I realized that I had a talent for technical music production. I was also obsessed with working on music. So much, in fact, that I traded social engagements, chill time, food, and sleep for it without a second thought.
I then figured out which area of technical music production was the most specialized, difficult, and celebrated. My search ended at Audio Mastering. It turned out that being a respected Mastering Engineer could be quite lucrative. It takes a certain personality to do it too. One has to be part musician, part scientist, and part Zen master. For that reason, there's a pretty short list of people that are genius at it. This is why Bob Ludwig has 11 Grammy wins, 27 nominations, and has mastered over 3,000 albums. The guy is a special specialist.
So, I decided. I would work my way towards becoming a Mastering Engineer. Starting point found.
Here’s a quick summary list of questions to ask yourself that might help you dial in your starting point:
1. What is something people have always told you that you’re good at?
2. How can you make that thing specialized?
3. Would you do that thing for fun, even if you weren’t getting paid?
Be Smart in Your Transition. Life isn’t a movie.
Let’s say you’ve found your starting point and are ready to transition away from your current way of making a living. Awesome. Good for you. But don’t go quit your job like Scarface in Half Baked just yet.
We all love a good story about someone having a revelation and quitting their job to run off and pursue their passion. But, it is not realistic. For every story you hear where that worked out, you don’t hear the other hundred thousand stories where it didn't. Those people have no time to tell their story. They are too busy working the job they went back to.
Some people say that the only way to soar is to have no backup plan. That’s true if you have to put yourself in extreme circumstances to get off the couch. But it’s not true if you are smart, patient, dedicated, and capable of strategizing.
Think of transitioning from your day job to self-employment as if you are climbing from one tree branch to another. Letting go of one branch and lunging with your whole body at another, will most likely result in you bellyflopping on the Earth. Yet, if you move one hand and leg at a time to another branch, you can make a wise transition without falling.
I transitioned from employment to self-employment over the course of a couple of years. First, I went down to 32 hours a week at my day job. That enabled me to put a full day towards music production and take on small projects. By doing this, I was able to learn, build my experience, and get the necessary audio gear. The lack of monetary risk kept me from worrying, which helped me stay focused on honing my skills.
Word spread with each project I completed and my audio work started to pick up. This enabled me to switch to part-time at my day job and put in three full days in the studio. My reputation grew as time passed, and eventually, I was able to sustain my living through audio work alone.
If you feel in your blood that professional independence is the path for you, know that it usually takes several years to get things up to full speed. Hang in there. You will persevere through passion and patience. One of the main tests in the early stages is how long you can bear uncertainty. Although it isn’t easy, the challenge teaches you to trust your ability to make things happen.
Excellence is Undeniable
Make sure that all your independent work is the absolute best it can be. Exceed expectations. Even your own. If you can come up with a way that something you’re doing can be 10% better, then put in the effort and make it so.
When you blow people away (clients, customers, etc.), you create a genuine impact in their life. Your work becomes an exciting memory for them and a standard to which they measure other things. If you blow someone’s mind with your work, they can’t help but tell other people about it. They want to share their excitement. That begins a positive word of mouth network that only expands with the more work you do. People say if you do good work, then the money comes. This is why.
In the early days, I made sure that every album I delivered back to a band or artist sounded so good that it even excited me. Bands were blown away when I gave their music back to them and they couldn’t wait to tell everyone they knew. And who do people in bands know? Other people in bands. This is how I grew my audio business: enthusiastic personal recommendation.
I’m not lying people. A friend of a former client emailed me about their project while I was typing this. They said they loved the work I did on their friend’s record and wanted to know if I would work on theirs.
Excellence is undeniable and that 10% extra effort can end up making 100% of the difference in the long game.
The Solo Hustle Isn’t for Everyone. And That’s OK
If you wake up to a fresh Monday morning and decide to watch Netflix for two hours, or even two minutes, instead of getting in your flow, then you are not cut out for the self-reliant life. You won't make it if your mindset is that you can do whatever you want (mess around) because you have free time. You have to see the free time as newly available time for you to work at your goal.
You have to have an unwavering drive to realize your vision and keep adding to your big picture. There are too many things that will distract you and make you waste the day if you aren’t excited to put in the work.
If this isn’t who you are, that is completely fine. For real. But be honest with yourself. Know that if you aren’t compelled to always work on your thing, then you should be doing it as a hobby and not a profession.
Being self-driven isn’t a choice. From what I can tell, it’s more of a natural quality. Even if you're naturally driven, the solo grind is still a lot of hard work. One has to reassign the way they relate to many aspects of life. For example, your relationship to money changes. Instead of regular paychecks dropping into your bank account, your income becomes elastic. It is something to consider if that type of thing freaks you out and you don’t think you could swing with it.
Again, if some of these realities make you not want to go all in, that is a completely respectable choice to make. The majority of the people I know are employees, not employers. They’re perfectly happy. It works for them and that’s a good thing. They don’t have to sweat the grind and always be hacking their way through the jungle with a machete. They work their job, leave for the day, forget about it, and enjoy their evenings and weekends.
Turning Your Passion Into a Living Changes Your Passion
Let’s say you love knitting dog mittens a few nights a week. Then one day, you think about all the cold dog paws out there in the world and decide to do something about it. That’s great, pups need warm paws. But when you go from knitting two pairs a month to ten a day, hating dog mittens might become your new passion.
Prepare yourself for the reality that when you start making money with your passion, you have to do it. A lot. And it will change how you feel about it. That doesn’t mean it will change in a bad way, but it might.
The constant pressure of relying on your passion for income will probably have the two following effects:
1. Working on your passion forty hours a week will make you numb to the surface level excitement you used to feel. This is human nature. We get used to things. But worry not, this isn’t all bad! In my experience, as the surface area excitement burned off, a deep, reserved, and timeless excitement came to life.
2. You will become way more talented at whatever it is that you’re doing. Think about it as a simple matter of time. How much better of a pianist would you become if you went from playing the piano two hours a week to forty?
Be Open To Change and Let Things Evolve
This is a counterintuitive, but important point. When you set off in the direction of your professional starting point, it’s critical to understand that all things change with time. The key to success is allowing yourself to walk through the doors that open for you.
Life is strange and full of surprises. Your independent profession can head in directions that you wouldn't anticipate. It is important to not get hung up on the thing you’ve chosen as your starting point. You might start off making one of your skills work for you. But in time, that could lead to more enticing opportunities that rely on different skills altogether. Follow your story, not your job description.
My experience is a good example of how the script can change. I started out my solo career as a music producer and things went great for years. There were heaps of projects coming through and I built a respectable reputation as a Mastering Engineer. Then, a few years ago, I started a podcast for fun. The intent was to have chats with friends about my other deep passions which are philosophy, consciousness, meditation, and writing.
Before I knew it, I was pretty much doing my podcast for a living, and only taking on the more exciting music projects. Ironically, the popularity of my podcast increased the demand for my music production skills. That transition is already curious enough, but hold tight, there’s more.
I dreamed of being an author since I was a teenager and have always been an avid reader. During the transition period I described above, I began bringing that passion to life by writing a small amount every afternoon. Life shifted again. I woke up one day, had a literary agent, and was meeting with the Big Five publishing houses. In yet another plot twist, I received several offers for my book and sold it to a publisher who I deeply respect.
A few weeks ago, I submitted my manuscript to the wonderful editors over at Penguin Random House.
In the matter of a few years, I went from being a music producer to a podcaster, to an author. It was all possible because I was open to what I saw coming down the road. I didn't cling to self-identification. I allowed my dreams to play out instead of resisting or sabotaging them.
The Big Payday
Working for yourself comes with benefits that extend beyond freedom from authority and a lane to create income from your passion. The big payday is learning more about who you are, what you’re capable of, and what weaknesses you have. Sure, you can, and will learn those things in life regardless of your profession. But there is a special brand of self-discovery that comes from being alone in a room all day trying to figure out how to pay for dinner with your ingenuity. It’s like working your heart out for weeks, months, and years alone in a silent meditation retreat. The silence gets loud. And I love every second of it.
Some of my friends have told me that my professional path has unfolded the way it has because I’m 'superhuman' or a 'creative force of nature.' That’s a charming way to look at it, but I don’t think that’s the case. It has all worked because I'm disciplined, focused, decisive, passionate, open, strategic, and unable to not do it.