There are many great business ideas out there, but how do you find the right one for you? It’s hard enough to get up the courage to start a business, but that’s only the beginning. Now you need to decide what business to start, and it’s not as simple as doing what seems obvious. For example, a friend of mine learned how to design websites while he was in college.
When he decided to start a business, he figured, “I know how to design websites, I guess I’ll start a website design business.” Others have started certain types of businesses because of a hobby, because they heard it was a good way to make money or because someone else dragged them into it.
Sometimes these decisions work out, but often they don’t, and that’s a shame — because if you start a business, it’s likely to consume several years of your life. Asking the following questions can help you make sure you’re starting the right business for you:
Why do you want to start a business? It seems like a simple question, but if you ask different entrepreneurs you’ll get different answers, at least you will if you dig deep enough. Most entrepreneurs will say they want to make the world a better place or make money, but many entrepreneurs use their businesses as a laboratory to experiment and learn, others are driven by a psychological need, and yet others are trying to please someone else. What’s motivating you?
In his book, The Founder’s Dilemmas, Noam T. Wasserman, dean of the Yeshiva University Sy Syms School of Business and former professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, divided founding entrepreneurs into two types based on their objectives. One type of founder wants money, while the other wants control. It’s a useful exercise to figure out which type you are and how that aligns with your other motivations.
Will it make a profit?
Too many entrepreneurs ask, “Will it make money?” and perhaps they mean “profit” when they say “money,” but it’s good to be specific. Almost any business will make money, but a business can’t survive, thrive or grow unless it has profits. Will your business idea turn a profit? How much? How fast? If you can’t answer those questions, are you sure this is the right business for you?
One hundred years ago, almost every man in the United States owned at least one dress hat, if not several. Men wore them whenever they stepped outside, to work and on dates. Then all the hats disappeared, and today you’d be hard-pressed to walk down a city street and see a single man wearing anything but a ball cap if they’re wearing a hat at all. Imagine all the hat manufacturers and hat sellers who went out of business when hats faded from common fashion, not to mention the suppliers of raw materials to make hats.
On the other hand, when the internet began to grow in the late ’90s, many entrepreneurs recognized the fundamental shift this new technology would bring to society and jumped on the bandwagon. Today, companies that are wholly dependent on the internet like Alphabet, Meta and Amazon are among the largest businesses in the world.
How can you know if demand is growing? Thankfully, the internet provides today’s founders with tools to answer this question in ways our entrepreneurial ancestors couldn’t have imagined. “Using search query data, we can detect breakout trends in different markets to identify rising consumer needs so we can meet them with a solution,” says Mulenga Agley, CEO of Growthcurve, whose company helps entrepreneurs identify and validate new business ideas before assisting them to scale.
Agley says they use Glimpse to gather and analyze data from Google Trends, Google’s own search trend tracking service, to help clients “discover trends before they’re trending.” Agley continues, “With the rapid advancements in machine learning, this technology will become ever more reliable and is one of the best ways to find new business ideas out there.”
Do I have what it takes?
You may have the grit and determination to be an entrepreneur, but do you have the right experience, skills and drive for the specific business you’re thinking of starting?
“After my first exit, I looked back at the experience running my first company Bikewagon to see what made me tick, and how I added value,” says Dale Majors, who is an investor in multiple companies and runs Venture Anyway, a mastermind group for entrepreneurs. “That experience helped me in my next business to know what problems I wanted to solve, the ones I felt best suited for.”
Some lessons only come with time, but one shortcut is to identify a business you want to run, then talk to others who are running that type of business, and ask them what it takes. The answers you get may steer you toward a different opportunity, or they may solidify your plan. Either way, you’re in a much better position.
When a venture capitalist is pitched on an idea, one of the first questions they’ll ask is, “Who’s on your team, and have they done this before?” A VC’s job is to maximize returns and minimize risk, and a team that has been there and done that stands a good chance of being able to do it again.
Whether you plan to raise funding or not, it’s good to ask yourself, “Who’s on my team, and are they the right team to bring my vision to reality?” One red flag to watch out for is team members who have never started or run a business before, let alone the kind of business you plan to start. Another danger sign is when a co-founder wants to get paid the kind of salary they would get in an established business.
Yet another is the co-founder who doesn’t have immediately useful skills that are critical to the business. There are too many red flags to list them all here, but if you consider just a few of them, you’re better off than the entrepreneur who doesn’t give it a second thought and brings on co-founders because they’re friends or because they seem “smart.”
Launching a new business is hard work, but it can also be rewarding. To increase your chances, don’t shy away from asking yourself hard questions. The hardest questions to answer may be the keys to your success.
Many older workers are not proactive about taking steps to help ensure they can work as long as they want or need, one expert said. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Many workers are staying on the job longer or plan to before going into their golden years. More retirees said they retired at ages 66-69, rising from 11% in 2021 to 14% in 2022, according to the latest annual survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Greenwald Research.
And 7 in 10 workers expect to work for pay as a source of their retirement income, and 1 in 5 are counting on it as a major source, according to the EBRI poll. A growing percentage of workers say they will never retire – 15% in 2022, up from 10% in 2021, according to the EBRI survey.
Unfortunately, expectations of working in retirement can backfire. For workers who plan to work in some fashion for pay after they retire, that desire still appears to be more of a nice notion than a reality. Only 27% of retirees have employment income, according to the EBRI poll.
‘Sad commentary that health insurance has to be such a big factor’
That desire to remain employed is backed up by other recent surveys. More than half of workers (57%) plan to work in retirement citing a variety of reasons ranging from the income to keeping their brains alert, or the social connection, according to the most recent study by the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
The specter of soaring medical costs alone is stomach-churning. The average couple age 65 retiring this year and enrolled in Medicare may need approximately $315,000 saved (after tax) to cover healthcare expenses in retirement, according to the Fidelity Retiree Health Care Cost Estimate.
That’s what motivated Russ Eanes, an author, to get back in the workforce after retiring five years ago from his job as chief executive at MennoMedia, a book publisher. A year ago, he went back to work at GetSetUp, an interactive website that delivers virtual education to older adults.
The impetus: A steady paycheck and access to a health insurance plan.
“It’s a sad commentary that health insurance has to be such a big factor in these decisions,” Eanes told Yahoo Money.. “I’m on Medicare as of February, but my wife is a year behind, so we have to scramble to figure out how to have her covered for another year. While I was making out okay as a freelancer, it can be feast or famine.”
Older workers are not always ‘proactive’
But getting back to work or staying employed is not always easy, and in some cases, it can be the workers themselves who short-change their ability to stay on the job longer.
“Many 50+ workers are not proactive about taking steps to help ensure they can work as long as they want and need,” Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of nonprofit Transamerica Institute and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, told Yahoo Money. “Among those employed by for-profit companies, our research showed that only 62 % are focused on staying healthy so they can continue working and just 44% are keeping their job skills up to date.”
Only a small percentage are networking and meeting new people (16%), taking classes to learn new skills (12%), scoping out the employment market and opportunities available (10 %), attending virtual conferences and webinars (9%), or obtaining a new degree, certification, or professional designation (5 %), Collinson said.
Meantime, more than 2 in 5 workers expect a gradual transition to retirement, according to the EBRI survey.
In reality, “only a fraction of companies offer employees the option of a phased retirement,” Collinson said. “Our most recent employer survey finds 27% of employers offer a formal phased retirement program.”
Even more troubling– nearly half of retirees retired earlier than they planned.
“Back-to-work plans can be upended by unexpected health challenges and caregiving demands,” Nancy Collamer, a retirement coach and author of “Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement,” told Yahoo Money.
The median expected retirement age for workers — age 65 — and the reported retirement age of retirees —age 62, according to the EBRI survey. Two-thirds said their early retirement was for a reason out of their control, such as a health problem or disability, company downsizing or reorganizations, or caregiving for a loved one.
Some of those reasons were amplified by the pandemic.
Since March 2020, 1.1 million more Americans between the ages of 55 and 74 retired earlier than what would have been expected during normal times, according to a recent report from The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. The number of those who retired involuntarily a year after losing a job was 10 times higher than pre-pandemic times, the report found.
‘Beginning to feel the impact of inflation’
This trend may be shifting. As of March 2022, 3.2% of workers who were retired just one year ago are now employed again, according to research by Nick Bunker, the director of economic research at Indeed Hiring Lab.
One caveat: while the EBRI Retirement Confidence Survey was conducted as the inflation rate had already begun its rapid rise, and at that time, the majority of workers and retirees reported being confident that they had enough money to keep up with inflation in retirement, the economic picture is grimmer now.
With the inflation rate at 8.3% in April of 2022, down slightly from 8.5% in March, which was the highest since December of 1981, and the S&P 500 index off its January peak by 16.6%, that exuberance may be fading.
“Some workers are beginning to feel the impact of inflation, and the number is likely to grow,” Copeland said. “How the economy evolves over the next few months is likely to result in workers reconsidering where they stand regarding retirement. If inflation continues at historic rates and the stock market continues falling, more workers will be reevaluating their retirement plans.”
You may be familiar with the saying “The future starts now.” As catchy as this phrase may be, it is fundamentally not true. The future doesn’t start now, or tomorrow, or next month—at least not if you want to get the most out of mental time travel. It takes much longer than that for the full benefits of the future to kick in. But when exactly the future starts depends on who you are and what your life circumstances are like. Let me tell you about a simple game I invented. If you play along, you’ll get a pretty good idea of when the future starts for you.
Every time I teach a futures-thinking class, I begin with a quick game of When Does the Future Start? I ask everyone: “If the future is a time when many or most things in your life will be different than they are today, how long from now does that future start?” I ask them to write down their answer in days, weeks, months, or years.
This isn’t a trick question, and there’s no single correct answer. In fact, usually there are dozens of different answers, all of them valid: a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, twenty years from now. (If you want to play along, go ahead and think of your answer to this question now.) That said, 10 years is far and away the most common answer to the question “When does the future start?” In the responses I’ve collected from more than 10,000 students, almost everyone agrees: Ten years is enough time for society and my own life to become dramatically different.
What makes 10 years such a magic number for the mind?
Most of us have internalized the power of 10 years to create change through a combination of our own lived experience and social convention. We think about our own lives as a series of 10-year-long periods: our 20s, our 30s, our 40s, and so on. We use these milestone birthdays to reflect on what we want our next decade of life to be like.
And we talk about decades as units of time in which society changes: think about how different the 1920s were from the 1910s, the 1960s from the 1950s, or how different the 2020s have already been from the 2010s. Anyone who has lived through more than one decade, or studied history, already has a clear mental model of just how much can change in 10 years.
If you look at recent history, 10 years really does seem almost like a magic number. You can find myriad examples of new ideas and actions creating a previously unimaginable social reality over the time span of a decade, give or take a few months. This is particularly true when it comes to social movements achieving historic victories, and new technologies achieving global impact. To consider just a few examples, it took, give or take a few months:
• 10 years for the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the United States to go from its first boycott of segregated bus seating to the successful passage of the federal Civil Rights Act (1955–1964)
• 10 years for the first international economic sanctions against South Africa’s segregationist apartheid system to lead to a new constitution that enfranchised Black South Africans and other racial groups (1985–1996)
• 10 years for same-sex marriage to go from being considered controversial when it was legalized by a country for the first time (the Netherlands) to being supported in global surveys by a majority of people in a majority of countries (2001–2010)
• 10 years for marijuana to go from being legalized for all uses in one US state, Colorado, to being decriminalized in 44 out of 50 states (2012–2021)
And it took:
• 10 years from when just 16 million people, mostly scientists and other academic researchers, were using the internet—they thought it would be used mostly to share scientific data—to when 1 billion people were using it (1991–2001)
• 10 years from the first iPhone release until a majority of people on the planet had smartphones, creating a new era of always-on communication (2007–2017)
• 10 years for Facebook to go from one user to 1 billion daily users, on its way to becoming the first product used by more than 1 in 3 humans on the planet (2004–2015)
• 10 years for Bitcoin to go from being a hypothetical idea discussed in a scientific article to having a nearly $1 trillion market capitalization, larger than the three biggest U.S. banks combined (2008–2019)
• 10 years from Airbnb’s and Uber’s foundings for a full 36 percent of U.S. workers to be engaged in some form of “gig work” (2008–2018)
• 10 years for Zoom to go from its first user testing session to becoming a critical lifeline for humanity during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the de facto tool for learning, work meetings, and staying in touch with friends and family (2011–2020)
In other words: Things that are small experiments today in 10 years can become ubiquitous and world-changing. And social change that seems improbable or unimaginable—well, in 10 years that can change, too.
Of course, not all goals for change can be achieved in a decade—many social movements take much longer. And progress doesn’t just stop after 10 years. The purpose of looking 10 years ahead isn’t to see that everything will happen on that timeline—but there is ample evidence that almost anything could happen on that timeline. And for that reason, 10 years helps unstick our minds. Ten years helps us consider possibilities we would otherwise dismiss.
Ten years even relaxes us a bit as we try to imagine preparing for dramatic disruptions or for a radical rethinking of what’s normal—because 10 years gives us time to get ready. And it’s for this reason that whenever I send people on mental time trips to the future, I almost always send them 10 years ahead. Futurists want people to go somewhere they believe anything can be different—even things that seem impossible to change today.
When we think on a 10-year timeline, it’s not just that we are more likely to believe that dramatic change can happen in the world. We become more optimistic and hopeful about what we can change through our own efforts. This has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as time spaciousness. It’s the relaxing and empowering feeling that we have enough time to do what really matters—to consider our options, make a plan, and act more confidently to create the future we want.
It is almost impossible to create a sense of time spaciousness when we’re thinking in a matter of days or weeks. But when thinking ahead 10 years … ah, it’s so much time! On a 10-year timeline, we don’t feel rushed. We have plenty of opportunity to develop new skills, collect resources, recruit allies, learn from our mistakes, bounce back from setbacks, and do whatever else we need to do to get the best possible outcome. This feeling of abundance makes us less risk-averse and therefore more creative. We have all the time we need to play with ideas, try new things, and experiment until we figure out what works.
Interestingly, brains respond to abundant space in the same way as they do to abundant time. Studies have found that we also think more creatively and set higher, “maximal,” goals for ourselves when we’re in rooms with higher ceilings or outside in a wide-open environment. With maximal goals, we focus on the upper boundary: What is the highest and best possible outcome we can imagine? So I like to think of a 10-year timeline as a kind of cathedral or Grand Canyon for the mind. It lifts the ceiling on our imagination.
When we feel time-poor, on the other hand, it’s like being stuck in a tiny, depressing room with no windows. We shrink ourselves and imagine less. We adopt “minimal” goals, which means we try to do just enough to avoid a bad outcome. As one team of expert psychologists put it: “A maximal goal reflects the most that one could wish for, whereas a minimal goal reflects bare necessities or the least one could comfortably tolerate.”
Do you have a sense of whether you’re waking up each day focused on maximal or minimal goals? Whether you’re feeling time-rich or time-poor? Setting goals for yourself (or your family, or your community, or your organization) on too short a timeline usually creates the feeling of being time-rushed. So does being too busy, but that’s not something you can always control. So rather than drastically reduce what’s on your schedule, it’s much easier to control how far out in the future you’re imagining when you think about changes you’d like to achieve.
You may not be used to goal setting on a 10-year timeline. We usually think about making personal change year by year, most commonly by making resolutions at the start of the New Year. But a one-year resolution won’t help you think maximally, and you won’t feel a sense of time spaciousness if you’re trying to achieve a big goal in just one year. So next New Year’s Day, why not try a new tradition? Make a 10-year resolution.
What could you (or your family, or your community, or your organization) accomplish if you had 10 years to do it? What would the long-term impact of a new habit be if you practiced it for 10 years? Let your mind play with some bigger possibilities. Now this idea may not sound appealing to you at first. When it comes to making resolutions, you don’t want to be different in 10 years; you want to be different as soon as possible! So go ahead and keep making short-term resolutions. And try to stretch your imagination a decade further too, while you’re at it.
If you want to get a taste of time spaciousness right now, here’s a trick you can try: pick a tiny task—and give yourself 10 years to do it. You might think that having all this time will make you more likely to procrastinate, and you’ll never actually get around to doing it. But procrastination, paradoxically, is more likely to happen when you feel time-poor. When you feel like you have less time to get things done, you do less.
And when you feel you have ample time, you do more. Studies show this is true completely independent of how much “free” or unscheduled time a person has. What matters is whether your brain perceives an abundance of time. So give it a try. Give yourself luxurious 10-year deadlines. You might be surprised at how much faster and more happily you do things you’d otherwise put off when you feel time-rich, and therefore more in control of your timeline.
I want you to try this, for real: go ahead and put a deadline, or some other small goal, on your personal calendar, for 10 years from today. Google’s and Apple’s calendar apps will let you schedule things 10 years in the future. While you’ve got your mental or digital calendar open, let’s try a mental time trip. Imagine it’s 10 years from today, and you wake up incredibly excited about … something. You’ve got a special event on the calendar. What is it?
To help you imagine this future more clearly, skip ahead in your digital calendar to 10 years from today. Now, fill in the blank space. What do you have planned, 10 years from today? Who are you doing it with? What will you be wearing? What supplies will you need? Why is this activity important or exciting for you? And how do you feel now that the day is here? Try to answer all these questions and imagine the day ahead as vividly as you can. Be sure to think about how you and your life circumstances might be different from today, and how those differences might change what you want or are able to do.
As with any mental time trip to far in the future, it may take a few moments for your brain to start filling in the blanks. Sometimes it helps to plant the seed of imagination in your mind now and come back to it later. Just keep the calendar open and keep playing with possibilities. My challenge for you is to put something exciting—maybe even something life-changing—on your real-world calendar for 10 years from today. You’ll have a whole decade to decide if you want to actually make it happen.
These smart glasses convinced me there’s a future for AR in the workplace. But what will it look like? There has been plenty said over the last decade about the potential for augmented and virtual reality to transform the working environment, particularly in an industrial context.
Despite the efforts of companies like Microsoft and Magic Leap, this grand vision is yet to come to fruition. However, the conversation around extended reality (XR) has become increasingly energetic since the metaverse entered public consciousness, and there are signs we may be on the cusp of a shift.
To see what all the fuss is about, I got hands-on with a pair of sports glasses from a company called Engo, which use ActiveLook AR technology to project information into the periphery of the wearer’s vision.
Although the glasses are neither as powerful nor feature-rich as the leading enterprise headsets, the core premise is largely the same. And they taught me more about the future of work than expected.
The simple purpose of the Engo glasses is to improve the safety of runners and cyclists by eliminating the need to glance down at a sports watch or head unit to consult activity data, which means more time spent with eyes on the road.
The specific data projected into the lens of the Engo glasses can be configured by the user, but includes real-time speed, distance travelled, time elapsed, elevation gained and so on. By waving a hand in front of the glasses, the wearer can switch between two separate banks of data.
In a factory or hospital setting, AR glasses fulfill a similar purpose, serving up important data to workers whose hands are otherwise engaged, and improving safety standards in the process.
What was most striking, having never worn a pair of AR glasses for longer than a few minutes, was the speed with which I became accustomed to receiving information in this new way.
Initially, it was disconcerting to have an artificial source of light hovering in the periphery of the vision, and the temptation was to physically turn the head to consult the information in the lens. But the quick sideways shift of the eye necessary to get a clear look at the figures became second nature soon enough.
And although the additional technology makes the smart glasses heavier than a regular pair, they are comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time, which will be a crucial factor if the technology is to achieve any real penetration. Admittedly, professional-grade AR glasses are even bulkier, but they benefit from extra strapping and support too.
The Engo glasses are also kitted out with photochromic lenses that adjust automatically to the light conditions, which in theory means the same set can be used at any time of day. In practice, I found the lenses performed well in full and partial sun and were a little dark at night, but they certainly weren’t unusable, and I can imagine a similar style of lens coming in handy for repair technicians and other workers operating in outdoor environments.
As for the data itself, the AMOLED display was plenty bright enough to ensure the information was legible on even the sunniest day.
So close, and yet so far
As enlightening as the experiment was, I still wouldn’t incorporate the Engo smart glasses into my regular ridewear. And for the same reasons, AR glasses like these will continue to find a comparatively limited audience in the professional sphere too, at least until a few kinks can be ironed out.
The most frustrating issue is that, unless the glasses are positioned just-so on the bridge of the nose, the data projected into the lens becomes blurred to the point of illegibility or slips from view entirely.
This field of view problem is far from ideal when hurtling down a descent on a bicycle, and would be even more irksome for someone performing a tricky repair on a piece of machinery, conducting a surgery, or doing anything else of the sort. And nor is the issue uncommon; the first-generation HoloLens had a notoriously slim field of view, which led to all manner of clipping and visual glitches.
The second problem was that the glasses would often misinterpret a glance down at the road or the shade of a passing tree as the hand motion that triggers the switch between data screens. It’s tough to draw a broad conclusion based on a quirk of a particular set of glasses, but it did highlight the need for all sensors to be functioning at full capacity for AR to deliver on its promise.
Lastly, but not leastly, there’s the vanity factor. Inevitably, the need to squeeze processors, lasers and mirrors into head-mounted device means AR glasses are bulkier than typical eyewear. Engo has done a decent job of concealing the hardware, but the glasses still give the wearer the look of a bluebottle fly.
Until AR glasses begin to look a little more sleek, I predict a general reluctance to wear them, regardless of the new scenarios they might enable. No one wants to be the next “Glasshole”.
Is the AR revolution inevitable?
The amount of investment flooding into the XR sector and major hardware contracts signed by the likes of the US military suggests the technology is making in-roads, at least in some sectors.
The industrial market will undoubtedly be the first to adopt AR, because the technology offers a novel solution to a long-standing problem, giving factory operators and repair technicians a way to access data and communications hands-free in difficult environments.
In an office context, AR glasses are more of a quality of life improvement, which means the expense is difficult for businesses to justify, irrespective of any potential productivity benefits.
However, as with all emerging hardware, AR glasses will come down in price and manufacturers will figure out how to pack more compute into a smaller, lighter form factor. We’ve already seen this process play out in the consumer VR space, with standalone headsets like the Oculus Quest and HTC Vive Focus largely competitive with the PC-tethered models from years gone by.
When the sums begin to look a little more sensible for businesses, it’s easy to envisage AR playing a bigger role in all of our working lives, not just for factory workers, military and medical professionals.
Imagine a scenario in which remote workers trade in their multi-monitor setups for a combination of traditional, AR and VR displays.
While activities like editing documents and browsing the web might be better suited to a conventional business monitor, AR glasses could serve up email and Slack notifications and alert the wearer to upcoming calendar bookings. Ahead of an important event or meeting, workers might then switch into a lightweight VR headset that better simulates in-person interaction.
Until now, I’ve been relatively skeptical about this vision of the workplace of the future, peddled mostly by the manufacturers of XR hardware and other companies with skin in the game. We already probably have too many screens in our lives, without a pair of specs that lasers data into our eyeline, I thought.
But the experience with the Engo glasses, as much as it can only be considered a loose comparator, showed me that AR doesn’t have to be intrusive. And the potential use cases are compelling.
I may not be ready for AR just yet, but then, AR isn’t quite ready for me yet either.
I didn’t love my old therapist, but she did give me one crucial piece of advice: Get a hobby. I was writing about food for work, so cooking didn’t really count as a hobby anymore — I’d already monetized that one — nor did reading, nor socializing, especially since all of my friends worked in my industry. I needed something in my life that existed apart from all that. I was stressed and, of course, also on my phone too much (and still am).
Maybe something you can do with your hands. The suggestion felt like an escape hatch: Maybe a hobby could free me from toil. Cooking had once been the thing I did to relax when I got home from work, the thing I was curious about, the thing that distracted my brain from its standard litany of complaints. Puttering in the kitchen had once been a release, but now it was part of my professional life. It needed a replacement. A few months later, I dutifully signed up for a ceramics class at a studio nearish my Brooklyn apartment.
This was March 2016. One of my roommates was an artist who had taken a class at that same studio, and I always envied the little pots she made. One of them was shaped like the face of a woman, with a ponytail for a handle. She gave it to me, and I put a small succulent in it that would soon die. I hoped that taking a class could make me more like her, or at the very least, happier — and if not that, well, maybe I’d make myself a bowl to put pasta in.
Learning to make ceramics on the wheel — this is what you picture when you think of that scene from Ghost — feels initially impossible, pointless, tantrum-inducing. In class, our teacher showed us how to take a blob of clay and slam it onto the machine’s surface, strong-arm it into symmetry as the wheel whirred around, dig a hole in its center with our fingers, make the hole wider, and then raise up the walls that would make it a vessel.
Doing it on my own was another thing entirely: a reminder of the unkind presence of physics, an asymmetrical lump thwapping around like an off-balance tornado, just some really ugly shit that would occasionally collapse in on itself.
This is par for the course. Most of us suck at first. The stuff you made in second-grade art class was objectively better. Clay shrinks when fired in a kiln, so the first mugs I made that weren’t ugly came out more like handled thimbles. Glazing each piece — decorating it with the often-colorful vitrified coating that makes it water-tight and food-safe, and glossy or matte — was its own messy challenge. My goal became not to make art or even craft, so much as to make things I didn’t hate.
Of course, failing at something new doesn’t feel good; it feels like banging your head against a wall in front of an invisible audience of your own making. Turning off the desire to excel once you leave work is often impossible, if not difficult.
That said, the pace of my failure was different at the studio. Making ceramics requires patience and is an exercise in delayed gratification (or dissatisfaction). There are so many ways to fuck something up, so many stages to the process, and entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and either failure and trying again or ecstatic satisfaction added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life. Entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and failure and trying again added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life
Through this mild and harmless struggle, I acquired a hobby. “How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated,” Jamaica Kincaid writes in My Garden (Book). “Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.”
Powerlessness, for an amateur, can be its own draw. At the studio, I started as a lazy learner, but in a few months became obsessed, signing up for more classes when my session ended. My classes netted out to about $40 a week, plus materials and the cost of firing. I was spending maybe $200 a month, which required an increased vigilance in my other spending but also meant I had something to care about.
I had a place to go in my free time that was not my office, or my apartment, or a friend’s apartment, or a restaurant, or a bar. I had something to be curious about, and my goals were unrelated to exterior forces: a boss, a job, a market, a reader. Unlike with writing, my progress was quantifiable: Now I can make a vase this tall. Now I have made a planter. Now my handles are beautiful. Now I have made two things that more or less look like a pair.
I also relished having something to do that didn’t involve a screen and therefore felt far from the style of work to which I was most accustomed. Hands covered in clay cannot swipe very well. Hobbies have always been defined by their tenuous relationship to work: After industrialization bifurcated life into the realms of work and leisure, hobbies appeared as something “productive” for workers to do with their newly minted chunks of free time.
“Leisure came to represent freedom because it took place in time separate from work, and time in an industrial world could be used for either work or leisure,” writes Steven Gelber in his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. “For this reason, industrial capitalism sharpened the West’s ambivalent feelings about leisure.” Leisure does not exist without work and is therefore defined by it.
Even as hobbies gained popularity among the 19th-century middle class, they mimicked the capitalist attitudes of the workplaces from which they were meant to provide relief. “Since the hobby was done at home in free time, it was under the complete control of the hobbyist. It was, in other words, a re-embracing of preindustrial labor, a recreation of the world of the yeoman, artisan, and independent merchant,” Gelber writes. “Hobbies were a Trojan horse that brought the ideology of the factory and office into the parlor.”
The capitalist value of a “work ethic” has always been present in the world of the hobbyist. We love hobbies because they are something to do that isn’t work, something that we choose to do. But they still so often require toil; we are still proud of ourselves when we perform our hobbies efficiently, competently. Pursuit of mastery is implied, if not always present. For me, few things match the thrill of pulling something beautiful out of the kiln. It always feels like a surprise I have magically given myself.
Once I had made a few things that I didn’t hate — and because I have a smartphone and a need for validation — I began posting photos of my work on Instagram. I loved making mugs, loved their practicality and the way they fit into a home. A mug can look like anything. I had newfound opinions on what mine should look like, and that felt good.
By the winter, people were asking to buy them. I was freelancing at the time, and my studio cost about $200 a month, plus more for materials. If I could regularly sell a few mugs, I’d break even. The baseline price for these things, according to a brief survey of other potters, was around $40 — I started selling mine for $35 or $40, depending on size.
From the beginning I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Like maybe I should wait until I got a little better, or until I could make a nice shiny website, or until I had, I don’t know, SKUs. But it felt irresponsible to turn down a few people who would help cover my expenses and who wanted my work in their hands. Once you start making things, you have to put them somewhere. You begin to understand why people collect stamps.
Certain hobbies are difficult to monetize — say, bird-watching. Coin collecting, unless you sell it all. Gardening. Many things can only be monetized by becoming a teacher, or maybe now an influencer. Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability. I wanted to keep making things but didn’t have space to keep it all; people love mugs; selling something feels like a pat on the head followed by a treat. (To be clear, the treat is money.)
People began commissioning mugs, and they’d tell me what color they wanted, send me a photo of something I’d made and ask for something similar. It was slapdash but it worked, and it covered my expenses. I was having fun and only mildly stressed by the process, always behind schedule. I look back now at some of the things that people paid for and feel a bit embarrassed, but I’m always wishing my work were a little uglier, so maybe I should be proud.
Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability Somewhere along the line I made a website and started selling things more formally, claiming the revenue on my taxes, finding a person with a real camera to take photos of my work. I’d leave my day job at a magazine and go to the studio, often until 1 or 2 in the morning. It made me late for work, but I didn’t care; I ended up getting laid off with one foot out the door, and was given the gift of time — more daytime hours, at least — to spend at the studio. I had lost my hobby and gained a revenue stream.
My ceramic work, now, is caught up in the question of selling. Mugs sell, so I make more of them. I take a sick pleasure in the exhausting production line of throwing, trimming, attaching handles, smoothing everything down, painting, glazing, firing, staring at rows of cups lined up like synchronized swimmers, ready to jump. It’s the same sick pleasure I get in staying up until 2 am working on a jigsaw puzzle: maniacally focused on my goal at the expense of my posture. Untangling the question of what I want to make from what will sell feels like crawling out of a very deep well.
The swiftness with which modern craftspeople can and do monetize their hobbies is, of course, not a surprise. Traditional careers are crumbling, and side hustles are fetishized; Instagram has turned marketing into a basic skill we’re all expected to have. It’s easier to sell the crap you make in your spare time, and you’re more likely to need the money than you might have been a few decades ago, when you could have just foisted it all on your friends. This all risks turning hobbies into even more of an illusion, a mirage of leisure that quickly turns to obligation.
Some people, though, have fought the seduction of commerce and won. RC, an artist who makes work under the name marinatedclouds, began her first sculptural project with the express intention not to sell it. She was burned out from working a full-time job in graphic design, where in order for an idea to succeed, it needed to be marketable. “So many interesting concepts got dismissed because they couldn’t fit into a business context,” she remembers. “It became a situation where I started feeling really empty — I didn’t know how to have fun anymore.”
She had long toyed with the idea of creating a book about chicken and rice, with 35 different dishes from around the world. But she’d never gotten around to it; the work was too similar to her job as a graphic designer. So she decided to turn it into a sculptural project, quitting her job in April 2018 and giving herself the summer to focus on ceramic chicken and rice. Once she was done, she just kept making things.
Her work is influenced by early 2000s nostalgia and her Taiwanese American upbringing; her pieces look like something made by a child from a different dimension, playful and mind-blowing in one. Pencils are sliced like bananas; crayons threaten to crawl out of their box. She once made an entire aughts-era desktop computer.
“Nurturing ideas was and is something I’m still extremely steadfast about,” RC says. “I want to pursue every idea, whether it lacks concept or not. Sometimes just making crayons is literally what I want. There’s no additional background to it, I just like the rainbow.” Refusing to sell her work — something she did for two years, despite enthusiastic interest from people on Instagram — allowed her to create the world of marinatedclouds without tainting it with outside influence. “For me, it’s just pursuing any and every idea that I have. That’s my form of self-expression.”
Quickly, her pieces began to pile up in her one-bedroom apartment. She was tripping over things. She got rid of her living room and turned it into a studio; she has no couch. But last winter, after a financially challenging 2020, she decided to sell some of her older pieces, both to make money and to clear space for new work. She learned that donuts sell really well. “That’s feedback that I didn’t actually need, but it does stay in the back of my head, and that’s something I do really want to avoid,” she says. She doesn’t want to cater to demand — only her own whims.
This is, for many of us, the dream: unfettered commitment to externalizing our innards without concern for any gaze but our own. Reclaiming one’s time, you could say. But it requires nothing short of a battle. “Society puts so much pressure on success as in status or monetization,” RC says, “but success to me now is being true to myself.”
I can no longer call ceramics my hobby, and I doubt I ever will. I assume I will sell my work until people stop buying it, both out of necessity and because it does bring me joy to make a silly little thing that someone will incorporate into the tableau of their home. The struggle, for me, is between what I want to make and what I assume people will buy; the struggle of wishing I could log off forever but knowing that Instagram is the most direct marketing tool I have. The only solution I have come up with is to have a segment of my work I make just for myself, without concern for the market — or at least with an attempted lack of concern.
But making time for that also means carving out time, both for creation and inspiration, for the rest that is required for my brain to think thoughts. This is something I crave more than a new hobby; this is peace.