Can Passion Pay the Rent?

By the SMU Social Media Team 

“It’s been exhilarating, daunting, and everything in between!” says SMU alumnus Daniel Yu of his decision to turn his hobby for sculpting figurines into a career after he gained his business management degree.

And Leonard Tan, who took the plunge as a competitive swimming coach right after graduating from SMU School of Social Sciences says, “I guess securing a 9–5pm office job is the only thing most people associate getting a degree with, but I have always wanted to do something more than that.”


Leonard Tan coaching


Digitally savvy, hyper-informed and driven by a hunger for life experience; an increasing number of millennials like Daniel and Leonard are choosing to shun a traditional career path in favour of a life less ordinary.

“We aren’t as bound by borders as we once were,” reflects Daniel, “we’re living in a time where the global market is literally at our fingertips, and it’s now a whole lot easier to earn a sustainable livelihood through less traditional means.”

We’re all familiar with the saying, ‘do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life’, but can a hobby really form the foundation for a sustainable future? Can passion for a pastime pave the way for success?


Dr Paul Lim


More and more millennials are deciding the answer to those questions is “yes” according to Dr Paul Lim, SMU Lecturer of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources at SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business, “There may be a fear of future regret if they did not take this opportunity to pursue their passions now,” he says.

Many enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle than previous generations. This means they’re less likely to be concerned about the impact of a short-term risk on long-term financial stability. And, says Dr Lim, millennials are keen not to repeat the career experience of their parents and grandparents—baby boomers and generation x—who worked long hours in sometimes unrewarding jobs for the sake of supporting the family, but had no time for enjoyment.

Quanda Ong

“These views are likely to have shaped why millennials look forward to a good work-life balance, expediting learning curves and a real need to do good and support a cause. I think what sums it up is the growing perception that having a high paying, promising career may not lead to happiness and a decent quality of life.”

That’s the reason SMU Economics alumnus Quanda Ong turned his back on a career in banking to fulfil a long-harboured ambition to start his own fashion label, “I realised that my marketing role at a private bank didn’t provide me sufficient freedom and opportunities to exercise my creativity, something that I live and breathe daily,” he explains. (Read also blog: Chronicles of Quanda Ong)

And even though he’s achieved success—Quanda’s unique brand of bags and accessories, Gnome & Bow, is stocked in stores across Asia and Europe—his strategy for the future is driven as much by purpose as profit, “I’d like Gnome & Bow to become a world advocate in literacy. We want to give back to society through the love of reading, learning and storytelling [with] book donation drives and mission trips to build libraries in parts of the world where the literacy rate is low.”

So, making a career out of one’s hobby can be fulfilling, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Dr Lim has identified several key attributes common to those who’ve achieved success,

“You must first be very good at what you do,” he says, and “be hungry to learn and question the status quo. Such a person wants to make something out of their lives and is not satisfied with the current situation; always wanting to improve upon it or to test out an idea that they think is awesome.”

Daniel Yu

Daniel Yu certainly fits this mould. “Quite early on,” he says, “I realised that sculpting was something that I enjoyed, and was good at. I was passionate about it and took the process of making quite seriously. Before it became a career, I had previously taken commissions and sold my works on the side to earn a little extra pocket money. I think I figured that if I put all my focus and hard work into this endeavour, I would be able to turn this hobby into something more.”

His leap into the unknown has certainly paid off. His clay and resin sculpted characters now have a cult following both at home and abroad and have featured in close to thirty exhibitions in cities around the world including Tokyo, Beijing, Taiwan, Jakarta, London and New York.

Leonard Tan’s dive into the unknown has seen him work with some of Singapore’s brightest young swimming talent, culminating last year with his appointment as National Youth Head Coach for swimming at the National Youth Sports Institute. “I really wanted to do my part and do whatever I could to take the sport I love to greater heights,” he says.

So where does this leave the university degree? Why spend three years studying to secure a ‘proper career’ when you could have invested all that time and money in developing your passion?



Dr Lim argues tertiary education provides an opportunity to acquire skills vital to the survival of any fledgling enterprise—business know-how and a solid contacts book, “Business principles must take priority to passion. Otherwise, you will become the proverbial starving artist in the long run. And one must build their reputation and network early in life. Being knowledgeable about business and your chosen industry early on will help navigate the pitfalls you’ll face further down the line.”

And Daniel Yu agrees, “I felt there were things that I had learnt in business school that could help me become a savvier independent artist.”


Daniel Yu's figurines


So once you’ve made your decision to venture off the beaten career path, what else can you do to ensure you make a success of it?

“Above all, dream big; but start with baby steps,” recommends Dr Lim, “I strongly suggest having a sufficient level of savings to tide you through the initial stages of the transition. And sources of emotional support are seldom considered but are a very important motivator and success factor. People rarely achieve success overnight.”

And if success isn’t forthcoming he says, be prepared to set a ‘cut-off date’, “like a circuit breaker that lets you know that it is time to rethink this plan and move into something a little more stable for the time being. Setbacks today can be revisited and achieve success in the future.”

Unsurprisingly, Leonard Tan has some encouraging advice for anyone out there looking to follow an untraditional path, “While you are young, pursue your passion and work hard. You don’t want to think about the ‘what if’ 10, 20 years down the road when you realised you have let opportunities slip away.”


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2 thoughts on “Can Passion Pay the Rent?

  1. NAVIS

    Pursuing your passions are definitely the greatest joy you can reap if it pays the rent! If you’re the lucky few, count that a blessing in yr life!

    The thing is not everyone can.. after all not everyone studies what they are really passionate about as they might not have the maturity or exposure to know yet their true love.

  2. Chris Lee

    Making a career from your hobby is definitely very fulfilling, but how many people can do so? I’m glad to see more and more people being able to achieve this feat now!

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