in entrepreneurship

Life’s Too Short to be Spent Paying Your Dues

Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.

In a different context, I’ve shared this message before. But today, I want to circle back on the idea of passion – and why it isn’t enough to be successful. That the key to success isn’t solely contingent on the amount of passion you possess.

This week Paul Jarvis, a designer and writer I very much respect, had an interesting, honest take on “paying your dues” – opening with the following:

“So you want to be location independent, have a passive income and make money off what you love, right? Don’t worry, all you need to do is start a company, sell something online and have a blog. The rest will fall into place, since you’ve got passion and know that doing your own thing is the path to happiness.”

I’ll second Paul in calling bullshit on this. Because while doing what you love is important – and ultimately it’s what we’re all working toward – doing what you love isn’t enough – it isn’t nearly enough – and it isn’t the recipe for success.

As Paul adds:

“…You have to do what you are really fucking good at, know it inside and out, and have worked at it for a long time. Going freelance right out of school or right after you learn a new skill can be both a comedy of errors and extremely egotistical (and you’re smarter than that)…I say all this not to your crush dreams, but offer a dose of reality and glimpse into the real world of working for yourself. It’s not all glamour and independence — it’s hard work, applying learned skills and having some real discipline. There’s no instant gratification to be found in freelancing, instead there’s cultivation and hard work over time, which leads to lasting success.”

This is a much needed, realistic look at what it takes to be successful as a business owner. But yet, as someone who’s 27 and has been growing his own business – and growing well – for the past three years – I find myself in disagreement with the idea that you MUST “pay your dues”.

That’s not to discount the experience I had at the big ad firm I worked in out of college – or the health-care company I worked at – and ultimately got fired from – when I moved to Chicago. Both were invaluable and teaching me and helping me understand what I liked, what I was good at, what kind of leadership I responded to – and at the end of the day – both pushed me down the path of entrepreneurship.

But I learned all of that – very quickly. I quickly learned what role I wanted work to play in my life. I knew that to be 100% satisfied, I needed to be working for myself. I believed – only a couple years removed from graduating college that owning a (successful) business was possible. And all of that led to taking a chance – taking a leap into the relative unknown of entrepreneurship.

So while experience matters – the idea of “paying your dues” is fading fast. The concept of “climbing the ladder”, nowadays, is an old-school train of thought.

This doesn’t simply apply to entrepreneurship – it applies to any career. We, collectively, seek work that matters. Work that’s challenging. Work that’s fulfilling. And we aren’t willing to wait. And really, we shouldn’t.

I’m 27 years old – far from an expert – far from having what many would call “enough” experience. But because I DO have passion – because I AM willing to work hard – because I AM committed and open to learning, every single day – from those who are more experienced – I continue to find success.

There’s a balance here: A balance that says passion, alone, isn’t enough and that experience and know-how is a key component to success. But that also says that we can’t forever hold ourselves back with the idea of “paying dues”.

Don’t let age – or experience – hold you back from doing the work you want to be and should be doing. If you believe you can do it. Do it.

Life’s too short to be spent paying your dues.

Add Your Voice



  1. Morning, Matt!
    I don’t have time to leave a full comment because I’m dashing around to get my daughter off to school (mostly on time), but I wanted to share this post with you. I think it speaks to what you’ve said: “But because I DO have passion – because I AM willing to work hard – because I AM committed and open to learning, every single day…”

    I think there’s a LOT to that.

  2. Amen. The idea of “paying your dues” holds so many of us back until we stop and realize one day…”Oh, why can’t I do this? Because of some imaginary number of years I haven’t yet spent in the trenches or answering to someone else?” No thank you….

  3. Great post!

    I do agree – there needs to be a balance between paying dues and actually “going for it”. There’s no magic amount of time or experience or anything else that is “enough”. Heck, both of us still paying our dues in some way because we’re constantly learning, updating skills, refining, etc. And that’s what helps us succeed.

    It’s a life journey. I think the simple act of being open goes a long way. Be open to not know everything, to possibly fail, to go where things lead you – but don’t get stuck on selling yourself that something won’t work before you even try.

    • Yes. Exactly my point, Paul. Not at all a disagreement of your post – but instead, an elaboration in that I really feel that learning and paying your dues is a life-long process – not something you DO so you never have to again, ya know? Cheers for making me think more critically about this and for reminding me that every experience – personal and professional – has value, if you open yourself up to learning and trying new things.

  4. I agree with the sentiment of this post as it does not offer a position of deference to an existing system of hierarchy and I definitely connect with that. May I offer slightly different perspective on this with consideration to the other real possibility of some losing their way by focusing in on fighting the system so much that they skip the necessity of knowing what you need to know to be successful and, in the case of leadership, gathering the knowledge of emotional intelligence necessary to lead. Having come out of a situation where paying your dues was not considered (much) I worked alongside a lot of people that were clearly the best pick “skills wise” for their given positions but had absolutely no leadership skills or confidence to lead. Sadly I think that normally only comes with wisdom and time. The results are ineffective decision making, turnover, professional gridlock and acrimony. May I suggest paying dues not being a necessity but in skipping the process understanding the learning that takes place when the dues are paid.
    A wise man told me once.
    When you start in business you get paid more for what you do than what you know.
    You will know when your career progresses when you are paid more for what you know than what you do.
    Thanks for the article, excellent reading!

  5. Ab-so-lutely. I love that you point out ‘climbing the latter’ is an old school train of thought. Especially when you don’t have to start at the bottom of the latter to begin with, AND we now have catapults and shoes with rockets taped to them that propel us to the top. There’s no need for the agonizing climb anymore…unless you accept it.

    • For some, digging ditches is the start of the path they wish to embark on – the bottom rung of the ladder is something that some are willing to accept – and there’s NOTHING wrong with that, as long as you accept it and keep in mind what your ultimate goals – and values – are. Couldn’t have said it better, Liz.

  6. I’m in my first job out of college and am quickly realizing some of the points you’ve made in this post. And you’re right, it is a balance. A balance of knowing that you need some “real world” experience under your belt, but that you can’t let a 9-5 job hinder you from going out and fighting for the chance to chase your dream. Another good post, Matt.

    • Yes. I learned very, very quickly that I would not allow myself to be held back for long through the process of “paying dues” – and you shouldn’t either, Katie. Be smart about it, but don’t feel obligated to pay dues and put in time simply for the sake of gaining “experience”. That time would be much better spent discovering what you DO love, what you ARE great at, and what you ARE passionate about.

  7. “Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.” This is the magic intersection of that “One Thing”. Paying the Dues is to find what you’re good at and to learn what the world needs. But I can’t agree with you more that the only thing missing often is in fact the “Passion” itself. Our education system teaches us enough to achieve the other two, but we still fail, because we need our hearts to get the missing “passion”. The heart and the passion is the unique unfair advantage, not the skills and and demand.

    • Yes. Well said! The one thing that will always set you apart from – anything – and everyone – is your own passion and the personal desire to do great things – that personal contribution, paired with skills, is what leads to success. Cheers!

  8. Hi Matt,

    Nice post. So many of us don’t think we can, but we can. It can start as simply as an observation, or a thought, or an idea, that leads to a decision to do something. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be something different. That’s always how growth gets going for me. Each win leads to the next. Even an unexpected kick up the jacksy, while not a good thing at the time, can steer you to a better place.

    You’re a long time dead. You’ve got to take a step and then you’ll realise how to take a leap.