I used to think that if you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like work. Now I know that not only can it feel just as hard as a real job sometimes, but that the feeling of being done with work brings about its own satisfaction.

I had a long conversation with a friend this week who is struggling to find that sweet spot of passion. She’s taken on several new things recently: a job, school, an audition, and while she’s excited about them all, there isn’t one that really sticks with her. It feels like too much work and not enough reward.

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I know the feeling all too well. When I was about 18 I moved to New York, got an internship at a record label, and started working every day. While I didn’t want for anything in my life then (except maybe sleep), it wasn’t that much fun. I was putting all this time into something because I thought it would make me happy, but really it just drained me. And then, after a year of that, I was let go from my job. It would have been easy to wallow in self-pity for a while (I went through two weeks of intense weeping), but luckily I had something else to focus on: graduate school applications.

After much deliberation and research, the art program at my school in Pennsylvania got the nod, and I started working on my graduate applications in earnest. It was exciting to be doing something that, at least in theory, would lead me back into the life that I’d loved so much before moving to New York.

My first step was applying for a scholarship. You didn’t even have to be an art student; you just had to show that you were talented and passionate about something. I knew I was the latter, but wasn’t sure if my artwork qualified as the former (since it could barely be called that back then). If I didn’t get this scholarship, there were no other options: all of my savings were gone, and I had two years of school ahead of me at a full-tuition rate.

Needless to say, I didn’t get it, but something interesting happened when the rejection letter came in the mail: instead of being down about not getting an award that wasn’t worth much anyway, I was even more motivated to hit my goal.

I started spending every waking hour working on my applications. In the beginning it was long hours, full of coffee and cookies, but slowly, as the real deadline approached, I began to spend most of my time at school after my shift ended at a nearby restaurant. There would be only a couple days between shifts where I’d have to sleep, eat, and go to class before I could put in another long day of drawing, writing about art, making new work, or photographing pieces.

That’s what I spent all my time doing for the next two months until the applications were due, which is one of the most intense times of my life. But when it was all done, I felt something that I hadn’t felt in months: peace. All of the weekends were mine again, I didn’t have to be making work or looking for new opportunities every day. I could relax, read a book, go out with friends, stay in and watch TV and finally take my shoes off after almost two years of working toward a goal.

I actually love my life now as much as I did when I was in school, but sometimes it can be hard to remember that back then, because at the time, everything seemed so difficult and painful.

It’s like that quote: “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside, remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.”