You Can Monetize Your Passion, But It Will Never Be The Same
“If you’re good at something, never do it for free” goes the saying. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.
I became acquainted with trekking somewhere around 2010. I was still a college kid who was pursuing his bachelors degree at the time. I thought I would eventually start working a corporate job like everyone else. Never had I ever imagined I’d be taking bus loads of people into the mountains for money a few years down the line. Yet that’s exactly what I ended up doing, sometimes for the money, and sometimes for pure love of the sport.
However, there was this massive discrepancy in my mental state, which became very apparent when I indulged myself in trekking for the sheer thrill of it, as opposed to when I did it as part of a job for money.
When I first began full fledged trekking (and that means an average of 2 weekends per month spent in the mountains every year) somewhere around 2012 after I graduated college and was working my first job, there were barely a handful of trekking and adventure companies around.
After completing dozens of treks with friends, we started our own volunteer based trekking club and I became an organizer there, taking participants into the jungles with the assistance of some of my close trek buddies from my days of volunteer based trekking.
Even this was quite benign and harmless as no money was involved, and we were charging them only the cost price for everything that was included. Over the course of the years, I would trek with various people coming from different backgrounds and different regions of the country. India was busy growing its IT sector in my home city of Bangalore and many hobby trekkers had already made enough money from it over the years to start their very own adventure companies. I had the opportunity of making acquaintance with many such adventure entrepreneurs during my non-profit trekking days.
Some of them invited me to lead their participants into the forest and show them the sights, either as a full time job, or as a part time gig with one time payment. I had no apprehensions about it at the time and thought it to be pretty harmless. Afterall, I had to do the very same thing that I was doing with the non-profit volunteer based clubs with the profit based ones.
In hindsight, I couldn’t believe how naive and stupid I was to even assume such a thing existed. Never had I imagined that each and every single aspect of trekking would dramatically change once I became a Trek Lead.
The responsibility, accountability, timelines, constant care and support that needs to be provided to participants, and the 24/7 professionalism that you need to carry with yourself as an organizer suck all the fun and joy out of trekking. It then starts feeling like a mental chore like any other desk job. Except, this isn’t even a desk job and I’m sweating it out in the sun, the cold, and the elements, taking all the trouble to ferry participants across pools, helping them cross technical sections, and constantly ensuring that everyone is accounted for in the group. At this point, I’d rather do a desk job in the comfort of an air-conditioned office with a constant supply of food and beverage instead of taking on so much stress and pressure for paltry pay.
Sure, a desk job might pay me less too, but at least there’s aircon and coffee!
This is where I went completely wrong with turning my passion into a job and learned so many lessons which I’m about to impart to you in this article. I don’t know about other passions or hobbies. Maybe they can be monetized without having the fun sucked out of them. What I do know is that hiking is definitely a passion that cannot be monetized, that is, unless you’re personally willing to make some compromises to the way you’ve always been doing it. It just isn’t going to feel the same.
Here are some reasons why you should never turn your passion for hiking into a job:
It comes as absolutely no surprise that this is numero uno on the list. When you turn something — anything — into a business, it must make money. And it must keep making money. With that non-negotiable comes a lot of stress, pressure, and hardships you’d never imagined you could face while doing it as a passion.
It destroys your “why”, the primary reason you were indulging yourself in the sport selflessly for such a long time in your life.
Adventure company owners place lots of pressure on trek leads to safely lead participants into the mountains, show them the sights, cook and camp with them — all while adhering to set timelines, maintaining company standards, and being professional — and then safely bring them back to civilization. At the same time, trek leads are expected to think on their feet and be ready for any eventualities such as sudden change in weather, a thunderstorm, an avalance, a forest fire, a participant getting injured, or any other kind of forest related eventuality.
Most adventure companies require you to don multiple hats as a trek lead. You might be asked to place ropes on a certain technical section, be the liaison between the company and homestay owners, do basecamp management, be the cook, the first aid provider, and assemble and provide the necessary gear to participants.
In the company I worked at, I was the trek lead and the cook. Luckily, I wasn’t burdened with any other responsibilities as the company owner took care of all the transport, gear, and snacks logistics. Donning so many roles as a trek lead for a pittance of a pay can feel extremely burdensome to outdoor enthusiasts and its also why so many of them ultimately leave the job for better pastures, or get back to working a desk job.
You don’t feel it on the first two to three treks. But unbeknownst to you, the pressure has already started creeping up on you. By your 5th trek you are totally burnt out and famished with all the responsibilities; keeping tabs on participants, tolerating all their shenanigans, adhering to timelines, acting professional, managing all the travel and food logistics, doing basecamp management, maintaining the standards of the company, as well as being prepared for any kind of eventuality.
As a hobby trekker, you have none of these concerns. The only person to bother about is yourself. Yes, you need to watch out for your buddies who accompany you on the trails, but not with the same urgency and seriousness that you would for participants on a paid trek. You have no one to answer to, and this makes it remarkably easier to make decisions.
Remember that in any adventure organization, a trek lead is at the very bottom of the hierarchy even though he/she does most of the physically strenuous and mentally demanding tasks.
As a trek lead, you are now responsible for participants lives. You’re responsible for getting them in and out of the forest over the weekend, while seeing that they have a good time there without any untoward incidents taking place. You are also responsible for obtaining trek permits from the forest department and ensuring that your group doesn’t cross the boundaries listed on the permit. Additionally, you or your co-organizer must know first-aid, CPR, and other emergency medical procedures that can save participants lives on the trail.
Your mind cannot wander towards the trees, rock formations, waterfalls, the birdsong, the animals and insects, or other eccentricities of the forest (unless any of these things interfere with participant safety). Your mind has to be 100% focussed on participant well being and safety at all times.
This isn’t the kind of trek you’re used to doing as a hobbyist. Monetizing it has twisted the nature of the sport into something you’ve never done before. It has morphed itself into something completely different and unrecognizable altogether.
“This isn’t the kind of trek you’re used to doing as a hobbyist. Monetizing it has twisted the nature of the sport into something you’ve never done before. It has morphed itself into something completely different and unrecognizable altogether.”
Give the above reply the next time someone asks you, “so why aren’t you working as a trek lead for money? You can earn and enjoy your passion at the same time, can’t you?”
“Trek Leader’s job is full of resposibilities as he is responsible. He who organizes the trek. He manages the back end operation team, Ration, Equipment with assistance of other team members. Other than this his main role is leading the trekkers through out the trek with full safety. The main test of trek leaders comes in the wake of emergency or unfavorable weather or conditions. The leader also performs daily administration tasks such as accounting, handling all driving, arranging the daily logistics, researching unfamiliar territory and managing the ever changing group dynamics.”
Timelines/Itineraries — Timings have to be strictly adhered to.
As a trek lead who’s being paid for the task, you can’t follow the trail as per your own whims and fancies. There’s a timeline that has to be adhered to, else you risk bringing disrepute to the organization or a black mark on your reputation as an organizer. This puts a lot of pressure on the trek leads to ensure that the group pace is maintained, and that no one is lagging behind.
You are the unofficial shepherd who needs to provide constant motivation and support to the ones lagging behind and see to it that every single member of the group makes it on time to the campsite. This places immense stress on you as a trek lead as your mind has to be everywhere and in the present moment all at once.
You cannot casually saunter along the trail and arrive after dark at the campsite and only then begin cooking like you do with your friends. Likewise, you cannot hurry participants up just because you want to reach the campsite early to finish all your campsite duties and prematurely call it a day, so that you can lounge in the campsite pool for the rest of the evening or hit the sack early. Thirdly, while exiting the forest, you cannot start for the city whenever you like.
If participants are unable to attend their offices the next day because you chose to start late from the village, you’re going to come under heavy fire for it. It is not your trek to do how you please. You are still responsible for the participants though.
Being a trek lead will test your perseverance and resolve in ways you can’t even imagine. You will find yourself between hell and high water on more occasions than you can think of. You will be forced to make some very tough decisions out there in the jungle in the most inhospitable of situations. This is why it can never be compared to a hobby.
Dealing with difficult participants/team management/decision making
Unlike on private treks, you cannot casually converse with participants to get them to move faster. You are now the face of a company. Anything you say is reflective of company management and its methods of dealing with slow participants. On the flip side, you must possess the emotional intelligence to reprimand and scold participants for risky behaviour in a diplomatic manner without losing your calm or hurting them in the process. You are the one responsible for their lives inside the forest. You must not shy away from reprimanding them when they flout rules or jeopardize group safety.
As regards to dealing with unruly or irate participants, you have to silently listen to whatever they say as you are a service provider and cannot give them back tit-for-tat. All you can do is raise the issue with your seniors and let them take it from there. But that is something you can only do once the trek is over, so you are stuck with the irate participant(s) for the rest of the trek. Having a difference of opinion with participants deep inside a forest is extremely undesirable as there is no one to mediate or reconcile the differences between the two parties. It also jeopardizes the safety and security of the trek for the entire group. A forest is the last place you want to have a dispute with anyone. Hence, you must be capable of swallowing your ego and taking one for the team in such situations in the larger interest of group safety.
Most importantly, any decision you make inside the forest must have a solid justification that you can later provide to your higher-ups. Since this isn’t one of your hobby treks, there are consequences to every decision you make and you must be answerable for them. This forces you to think a hundred times before making any decision, already adding to your existing mental load and stressing you out.
All of this sucks the fun and joy out of trekking, and it’s at this very moment that I realized working as a trek lead for an adventure company was a foolish mistake.
Food and lodging —must meet customer expectations
All aspects of food and lodging must be perfect down to the very last letter.
From the condition of the zippers in the tents to the amount of salt in the food, each and every aspect of the trek must be up to the standards advertised by the company to prospective customers. There is no room for error. Since someone is now paying you to do this, you must ensure that food, service, and accomodation is top notch and that there are no slip-ups. Customer expectations have to be met.
Whether you are staying in tents or homestays overnight, it is your duty to ensure that each and everything is functioning and in working order. Toilets must be clean. Food must be prepared in a hygienic manner, and it should be tasty. Even though the trek for the day is over, you are still on the clock. You role just changed from ‘Trek Lead’ to ‘Campsite Manager’.
As a paid trek lead, you don’t get to relax at the campsite. You only get to relax when the trek is over and everyone’s successfully made it out of the forest in one piece.
Most often, campsite management is taken care of by the company itself, but some companies delegate even this task to the trek leads.
When all these factors combine together, your favourite sport or hobby ceases to be the indulgence it once was and you no longer possess the unbridled and undying passion for it which you once had. Engaging in your favourite hobby with your buddies a couple of times a month, and being tasked with taking trekkers into the wilderness every single weekend as part of a professional job are two vastly different things.
Working as a trek lead casts an aura of seriousness and responsibility over your previous happy-go-lucky hobby trekker self.
“Working as a trek lead casts an aura of seriousness and responsibility over your previous happy-go-lucky hobby trekker self.”
You are no longer the master of your moods and trekking timelines. You must follow the timeline of the itinerary shared with the participants and must act and behave professional for the sake of the company. This means no slurping up water like an animal, climbing up trees, pulling stunts on boulders, goofing around in the water, or indulging in any kind of other naughty shenanigans. You have a professional image to project to the participants. Only then will they feel safe with you.
The participants are 100% dependent on you to get them in and out of the jungle safely. Participant safety and wellbeing has got to be the only thing on your mind. If your concentration wavers and you take your eyes off the participants even for a few minutes, something terrible could happen.
All of these factors plus much more draw the miles of separation between what being a hobby trekker and being a Trek Lead is.
Do let me know your thoughts in the comments section to the side.