A few years back, I Wrote a very short post describing a concept I developed which I called the rule of 2.5. In the intervening years my writing style changed dramatically. I went from posting short pithy blogs to writing longer form articles that really explore the subject from all angles. I’ve decided to go back and take some of those shorter posts, the ones that were commentary on some of the more core components of my focus area, and give them the attention they are due. The rule of 2.5 is one of these topics.
The basic premise of the rule of 2.5 is that you only have room for two big things and one little thing in your life. For most people these things are work, family, and something else on the side. The part time focus area doesn’t have to be economic, i.e. a part time job. It could be school, or a big social thing like running a little league or some other passionate interest. In rare instances, one of the two full time interest areas are combined with the part time interest area. The family man spends every free moment doing family activities or the business owner will put in 70+ hours a week on the job. They just happened to get lucky to where their full time commitment and their part time interest area are the same thing. These people tend to be in the minority.
The rule of 2.5 is really more of a rule for those who are aspirational in an additional area in their life. Who wish to do something that’s not a family commitment nor is it directly related to their current method for paying the bills. Consequently they attempt to do the thing, but due to the physics of time, they are highly limited in their progress. That is the conundrum of the rule of 2.5. It takes full time work to turn the .5 thing into a full time thing. It’s very difficult to build a big business or grow a movement if not engaged in related activities full time and consistently over the long haul. So the thing that is the highest personal interest to many people is limited to part time because of the other predetermined demands in their life including a job and family commitments. It’s not surprising that there would be frustration when someone is so limited in their ability to do the thing they want to do, that they are passionate about, and the thing they feel could grow into something great.
The biggest .5 is the part time business, or to use the modern term, the side hustle. Typically this effort starts as a way to earn extra cash, because most working people, especially those with families who are making anything close to average wages, could always use some extra cash. If the side hustle is something beyond labor, if it’s an interest area, then I’ve never known someone who didn’t want it to grow into a full time gig.
I, sadly, am well versed in this area. I’ve attempted a few different side hustles that I wanted to grow into successful and highly profitable business. I had a travel agency that targeted cruises and all-inclusives. I’ve written a book that I’ve struggled to get off the ground. I’ve toyed with many other ideas including retail, real estate and web based businesses. I never made much money, which is par for the course. Most new businesses make little to no money for a long time. The line I used, which I believe is very true to this day, is that you have to spend a great deal of time learning what not to do before you figure out what you need to do to be successful. In many, if not all, cases what I needed was more time, much more time, to start to make progress. My reflections on these efforts in aggregate, is what eventually coalesced into my rule of 2.5.
You Need More Time
Going back to my business, what I needed wasn’t necessarily more capitol, but more time. Capitol would have helped. As the old phrase goes, time is money, but time was even more important. No matter what you are doing, time is the limiting factor. In the case of the travel agency, I eventually realized that the only way to make money was to become an affinity group specialist. You don’t make money in that industry by sending families on vacations or business people on trips. You find a group with a passion, and then become the primary vendor for trips built around that passion. You are seeing this more and more. There are cruises for quilting groups, there are music cruises built around a specific style of music or group. There are singles trips and events for thrill seekers. It would have taken me much more time to get to all of these groups and develop a name for myself.
There is an analogue with media. Today if you want to be successful in any media it takes time to build an audience. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, a Youtuber, a podcaster, a video gamemaker, the odds of the super star viral success are probably comparable to becoming a pro sports athlete. It takes engaging with a community, full time, for years, before there is enough of an audience to support your work as your primary source of income.
This, by the way, is why seed capital is used in any major business startup. It’s so that people can get paid for the years of full time effort it takes to make the new business self sustaining. If I had someone investing enough for me and one or two other people to work full time for a couple of years, I’m sure I could have found a path to sustainable profitability. It’s not hubris, it’s just that there is a process to making money. Try something if it works, do it again, if it doesn’t try something else. Eventually all the stuff you do that makes money turns into enough money.
There are a couple of areas where money isn’t really involved, but it still requires much more time. Think about the person who has a passion for helping their fellow man. They could do it through seeding a church or some other humanitarian non-profit effort. No matter if your trying to build up a congregation, a literacy program or a food bank, a successful effort requires being highly organized as an effort, making connections, developing resources, creating processes, and all number of other tasks. This takes time and even if there are gobs of volunteers the focus of a full-time person or two will always be more effective than the partial efforts of many part timers.
There is personal betterment in a discipline. It doesn’t have to be formal schooling, but the effort to get an advanced degree usually requires full time work to master. There is a proliferation of part time programs at the masters and doctorate level for professionals. In my opinion, these really are more aligned with certification and career justification than they are with mastery. I’ve known many people with masters degrees who are not masters of their discipline. If knowledge, deep knowledge, a true mastery, in any subject area is the focus, it’s really hard to do that part time. Most schooling in any advanced subject area really is a full time endeavor to do it right. The same can be said for any knowledge area, even those not recognized by a state university. Personal health, yoga, music, art of any type, it really takes lots of time to do it right.
There are no shortcuts to the need for time. There are many people who would like to tell you they have one and what they offer are what I think of as part time traps. These traps will suck up that precious and limited time in a way that betters their life, not yours. Even the advanced degree is a version of the part time trap. No matter if it’s socially acceptable, you should always be wary of people who will promise you the world for just a few hours a week. If mastery of a subject is your goal, then it’s impossible to become one in a part time Masters program. Of course the prepackaged side business is the biggest part time trap. If making a full time income with your side hustle is the goal, reselling someone else’s product is never really a good idea no matter what what the Mary Kay or Primerica regional director tells you.
Why can’t people do the .5 thing, i.e. the passion, full time?
This all doesn’t seem fair, does it? Having a family is a biologically normal and widely accepted behavior. Most people can’t live off the land and thrive in our modern world on working just a few hours a week, We’ve been told all of our lives that we can and should follow our passions, but let’s be honest, how many people do you know are engaged in their passion full time? The only ones I know are young people with a tremendously generous support structure or those who are independently wealthy.
Part of the answer falls squarely on our own shoulders. We want things in life, things cost money. We spend the majority of our time acquiring those things and then we spend time on maintaining them. How many people are going to live tremendously below their means so they can spend the majority of their time focused on their passions? Technically someone could make $20K working part time in a medical job and live in a paid for garage apartment or a tiny house on an inexpensive piece of land. They would then have their freedom and the time to really focus on their passions. Most people I know, the ones who want what they consider to be a normal life, don’t live to this extreme.
Part of the answer is the great risk shift. Unprofitable passions are usually an investment in the future. In our world, the risk of investment into the future is put on the individual wherever possible. How many organizations will not only pay for someone to go to school full time but also give them time off from the job to do it properly? The only programs I know that are like this in the private sector are apprenticeships, but even then that only works when the apprentice is in a program that aligns to their interests. There are fellowships, grants and other options in the public sector but precious few.
Work pays the bills and is analogous to physiological and safety needs expressed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Family is the cornerstone for things related to Love and belonging. The rest, Esteem and Self-Actualization is generally where we have our .5 effort.
Is there any way around the rule?
I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t have another passionate interest like being active in your community, have a family, work a full time job, and do all three very effectively. One has to only be done one the fringes of the other two. I used the phrase “The Rule of 2.5” because rules are hard to break, and it’s hard, if not impossible to do three big things in your life.
Earlier I cited the example of someone living on nothing to follow their passions but there are other ways to really have the time to immerse yourself in a passion. It’s the on-off model. Potentially you could save and then take time off from your full time job. Many people do this for a while when they strike out on their own. In my experience most do return to a full time job eventually, usually within a year or two. It’s hard to take more time and not lose what you have. Realistically, how many people earn enough in a year so they can take two to five years off and concentrate on a passion full time? Answer: almost no one.
One possibility is to not have a family. It’s easy to work a full time job that pays the bills and dedicate all your other time to the passion interest. Realistically it’s almost always too late for that. Also, even if you choose this option there is a very big negative to choosing to not have children and a family. No family means there is a separation between you and a large majority of the rest of the world. Most people have kids. Without a chunk of your life spent being a parent, you miss out on the biggest shared experiences that most adults have.
This is the same reason why the “living on nothing existence” doesn’t work well. Most people with children don’t live an extreme low cost lifestyle without bills. The sacrifices needed can work to allow for the .5 to become a main focus of your life but it almost always separates you from the community because of the aforementioned shared social experiences.
There is a third possibility that can sometimes work. It’s taking the thing that is usually a barrier to turning the .5 into full time, and using it as an asset. I’m talking about time. If there is consistency in the .5 effort, if you keep at it, year after year, little by little, the effort can have a cumulative effect. This is where i’ve seen people successfully make the jump from a part time passion project to a full time endeavor. If you have worked at a business for several years part time, eventually when the full time opportunity shows itself, then it’s an easy move to make. If it’s a non profit or artistic passion, there may be a way to earn full time income out of it. Large non-profits usually need an executive director. The person who’s been at the forefront of the effort and wants to do it full time usually gets the opportunity first. Artists usually find an audience that’s willing to pay, but it may take many decades to get to that point.
Yes, The rule of 2.5 is a rule in the sense that it’s hard to get around. That being said, a focus on the .5’s over time can sometimes add up to a number 1. You just have to keep it up. If there is one thing I have learned over the years it’s this. No matter what your passion is in life, if you want to be successful, you have to go through a whole bunch of number 2 to get something to be your number 1!