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You often hear advice from successful people that you should "Follow your passion."  That sounds about right. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?

Here's the counterargument:  When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank in San Francisco, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don't want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He's in business for the wrong reason.

My boss at the time, who had been a commercial lender for over thirty years, said the best loan customer is one who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry cleaning store, or invest in a fast food franchise - boring stuff. That's the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.

So who's right? Is passion a useful tool for success, or is it just something that makes you irrational?

My hypothesis is that passionate people are more likely to take big risks in the pursuit of unlikely goals, and so you would expect to see more failures and more huge successes among the passionate. Passionate people who fail don't get a chance to offer their advice to the rest of us. But successful passionate people are writing books and answering interview questions about their secrets for success every day. Naturally those successful people want you to believe that success is a product of their awesomeness, but they also want to retain some humility. One can't be humble and say, "I succeeded because I am far smarter than the average person." But you can say your passion was a key to your success, because everyone can be passionate about something or other, right? Passion sounds more accessible. If you're dumb, there's not much you can do about it, but passion is something we think anyone can generate in the right circumstances. Passion feels very democratic. It is the people's talent, available to all.

It's also mostly bullshit.

Consider two entrepreneurs. Everything else being equal, one is passionate and possesses average talent, while the other is exceedingly brilliant, full of energy, and highly determined to succeed. Which one do you bet on?

It's easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I've been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion. The ones that didn't work out - and that would be most of them - slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded. As a result, it looks as if the projects I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, the passion evolved at the same rate as the success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

Passion can also be a simple marker for talent. We humans tend to enjoy doing things we are good at while not enjoying things we suck at. We're also fairly good at predicting what we might be good at before we try. I was passionate about tennis the first day I picked up a racket, and I've played all my life, but I also knew it was the type of thing I could be good at, unlike basketball or football. So sometimes passion is simply a byproduct of knowing you will be good at something.

I hate selling, but I know it's because I'm bad at it. If I were a sensational sales person, or had potential to be one, I'd probably feel passionate about sales. And people who observed my success would assume my passion was causing my success as opposed to being a mere indicator of talent.

If you ask a billionaire the secret of his success, he might say it is passion, because that sounds like a sexy answer that is suitably humble. But after a few drinks I think he'd say his success was a combination of desire, luck, hard work, determination, brains, and appetite for risk.

 
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May 1, 2013
This is why I come to read - truth and honestly. Brilliant - best. article. ever.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 5, 2013
Success is based on exactly two factors, perseverance and luck. It's a sliding scale.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 5, 2013
To Scott Adams:
Define success.

For you it seems success is making more money. If the Sport Store guys makes enough money to live and is happy doing what he does he is more successful than the dry cleaning guy that makes more money but hates his business.

Hateful (but profitable) jobs and business should be thought as a stepping stone. Not a destination.

Irrelevant of how much money you make, Is pretty stupid living life doing something you hate. If its temporarily then is acceptable, even wise, if its permanent then you are an idiot.

 
 
Mar 4, 2013
The best salesman I ever knew may or may not have had passion for sales, but he really loved his customers, and was authentically grateful for every order he wrote. It really felt like he was a sincere friend. And maybe that's how he felt.

I think this was an important factor in his success, and I think it is "passion" in this sense that is a true predictor of success. The commercial lender mentioned in the entry was either very wrong, or what he really meant was never lend to a person who has only enthusiasm for what he/she wants to do without having a heart that's in the right place. If that is what he meant, and I kind of think it was, then he expressed himself badly... when he said "passion" he really meant mere fascination or infatuation.
 
 
Feb 25, 2013
@GLK

[...we tend to put successful businesspeople on a pedestal as if they are somehow better than the rest of us mere mortals....]

You might say that. You might also say that some of us do that while others expect too much from businesspeople. That some of us forget they're human, focus on their faults and go on about how awful they are.

[...But history shows that the vast majority of these people are never able to repeat their initial success...]

This sound about right to you Scott?
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 25, 2013
As a former small business owner I'd say you hit the bull's-eye on this one Scott. People always say you should make your hobby your business. I say, that's a good way to ruin a perfectly good hobby. A very wise (and rich) old man once told me we tend to put successful businesspeople on a pedestal as if they are somehow better than the rest of us mere mortals. We hang on every word they say as if somehow their wisdom will rub off. But history shows that the vast majority of these people are never able to repeat their initial success. Once they have money to invest in other projects they might score a few victories here and there but by and large they never repeat what made them wildly successful in the first place. That would seem to indicate that timing and luck have as much to do with success as any special acumen they possess.
 
 
Feb 25, 2013
[Delius 1967] "I've spent almost my entire career in software testing, because NOTHING bothers me more than a poorly designed or implemented product. When I see a stupid bug, it actually, no exaggeration, makes me angry. I reserve special ire for GUIs that seem to go out of their way to be hard to use. Low quality offends me, in a very personal sense, because it is a symptom of someone who doesn't care enough to do his job correctly."

Well, you and I have some things in common there. I used to be proud of calling myself a programmer, but in recent years I've come to the realization that I don't really like being herded in with that crowd. There's a serious giving-a-crap issue across the entire software development profession. I think it's an epidemic among 20's and early 30's workers, though, not just people in software. You're lucky to get more than an hour or two of work out of them in a day, and it's always spurious CYA work.
 
 
Feb 24, 2013
I wonder if this theory can be applied to the whole "positive thinking" conventional wisdom prescription. I've often felt that this can lead to a demented fear of anything not positive. Taken to its logical conclusion, it becomes complete thought censorship. That and the notion that repeating mantras to oneself like "every day in every way I'm getting better and better." Well, it turns you into a deluded half-human who lives in a state of denial with horsey blinders on. The sort of person who can't look at the dark side of anything, including themselves. I think conscientious and balanced self reflection is a better idea.
 
 
Feb 23, 2013
Another thing is whether you're passionate about the work or something that goes with it. A passion to be a rock star is not the same as a passion to play. The former brands you a failure the moment you articulate it. The latter MIGHT lead to working an agreeable day job, which allows you to play every weekend in a small lounge.

Likewise, a passion for a product is not the same as a passion (or competence) for the work of creating/selling it. Think of Jack Black in "High Fidelity," ripping into a prospective record store customer with inferior tastes. Or all the kids who want to go into computer games with a vague notion they'll get paid for playing all the time and sharing their Cool Ideas with whoever does the actual work.
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
Who is right? Both. The question is not well defined. An observational bias is in effect here. Passionate founders are more likely to fail, because they are more likely to make big bets. However, because of these big bets, when they do succeed, they will succeed spectacularly.

So, if you observe from the perspective of "are poster-child startups led by passionate founders", you'll reach the conclusion that they are indeed led by passionate founders. If you look from the perspective of "are startups led by passionate founders likely to succeed", you'll find that your bank manager was right: they are not likely to succeed.
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
[Drowlord] "Thing is... I HATE QA testing. I despise it. It's the worst job in software, imo. People have quoted me as having "passion" for all kinds of things that I likewise HATE -- workflow, documentation, regulatory & compliance processes -- but which I work hard on, because I accept that it needs to be done and I can see that it isn't being done (or not very well) and I hate to see things fail."

I think you missed a key point here, which is, you can hate something just as passionately as you love it.

I've spent almost my entire career in software testing, because NOTHING bothers me more than a poorly designed or implemented product. When I see a stupid bug, it actually, no exaggeration, makes me angry. I reserve special ire for GUIs that seem to go out of their way to be hard to use. Low quality offends me, in a very personal sense, because it is a symptom of someone who doesn't care enough to do his job correctly.

I would say I have a passion for quality. It is a negative force, not a positive one, but that's just the nature of the testing business.
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
A lot depends on how you define success. Your boss defined success in purely monetary terms. If you define success as making money, then a person who is passionate about making money may be a good bet. People who are passionate about other things may be also successful in their pursuits. For instance, people who are passionate about art may produce beautiful works of art even if they don't make any money at it. They may define that as success.
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
@Drowlord

[Eventually, they made me manager of the QA team.

Thing is... I HATE QA testing. I despise it. It's the worst job in software, imo. People have quoted me as having "passion" for all kinds of things that I likewise HATE -- workflow, documentation, regulatory & compliance processes -- but which I work hard on, because I accept that it needs to be done and I can see that it isn't being done (or not very well) and I hate to see things fail.

Which, in addition to convincing me that passion is meaningless, has further convinced me that "all good work is punished."]

Welcome to the Dilbert Zone!

Sounds like an encouragement for doing things the Wally way.
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
People seem to see the word "passion" in lots of different ways. And see passion in lots of different things.

In a previous company of mine, we had a serious quality control problem because our QA testers pretty much refused to do their job. When I couldn't get management to address them, I just started doing it. Collecting use cases, making test cases, compiling into testing plans and testing scripts. I did a lot of documentation around the product that helped developers do unit tests, too. I sorta slacked on all of my "real" work to get some testing done -- to the overall benefit of the product and team. In meetings, people kept citing my "passion" for quality assurance which made me nervous. Eventually, they made me manager of the QA team.

Thing is... I HATE QA testing. I despise it. It's the worst job in software, imo. People have quoted me as having "passion" for all kinds of things that I likewise HATE -- workflow, documentation, regulatory & compliance processes -- but which I work hard on, because I accept that it needs to be done and I can see that it isn't being done (or not very well) and I hate to see things fail.

Which, in addition to convincing me that passion is meaningless, has further convinced me that "all good work is punished." Because excellence requires attention to unpleasant details, and the reward for doing unpopular work well is more of the unpopular work (or all of it!). To paraphrase one of my past bosses "I know you hate doing this, but so do the other guys, and if I give it to !$%* YYY, or ZZZ, they'll half-ass it. I know that you'll do a good job of it. Sorry."
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
@minotaurus

[Why is it necessary that a passionate person not be exceedingly brilliant, full of energy and highly determined to succeed. I think this is a faulty assumption....]

Scotts point is that there are a lot of folks out there who do or did something they are/were passionate about and that a lot of them fail at it. SOMETHING other than passion has to separate the successes from the failures. From your POV it may seem like they are both brilliant energetic and highly motivated but one of them has the edge over the other in this regard and succeeds where the other one fails.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 22, 2013
Counter-counterargument:

Which one of the following two people is more "succesful"l?

1 - The passionate sports guy who opens a store (he got the loan from another bank or from a friend) who barely gets by, doesn't open any new stores, but goes to work every day whistling because he loves what he is doing.

2 - The grinder who opens the dry cleaning store, earns good money, opens a few other dry cleaning stores. His job wears him off because he doesn't really likes what he's doing. Probably starts heaving health problems in his mid-fourties because of the work load.

And while we're on the topic of passion, what about the passion for hard work? That is an important factor for the kind of success you are talking about. (and it is a passion that I know you have).
 
 
Feb 22, 2013
I guess passion - when mixed with some luck and aptitude - does lead to success because passion is what drives you to put in more hours, to improve what you're doing, and really strive to make something happen in your work. I think passion is just another word for motivation. If you're dispassionate or apathetic about your job, you'll tend to just go there, do it, and go home again, without going the extra mile.

That said, as you say, it's fair to say that passion doesn't necessarily lead to success; it has to be mixed with other factors. And passion without due care can lead to outright failure (or pregnancy).

To me, I think financial gain and business success are a nice possible side-effect of following your passion; not the point. The point of following a passion is that you can go to work and not feel like your soul is dying within you. Since we spend so much time at work, we should do something we can feel connected to.

I guess when we talk about passion, 'following a passion' doesn't have to mean taking our favourite thing and building a career around it. It can mean just having elements of our jobs that challenge us in a good way; we do things in our jobs that we enjoy doing. For example, I love books, but that doesn't mean I want to run a bookshop or be an editor or be a librarian - they sound like awful jobs to me.

Instead, after initially working in a field that didn't suit me, I've become a teacher. This isn't a job that will lead to great business success, but it gives me a lot of scope to exercise my brain, be creative, use technology, create resources, meet a lot of interesting people and enjoy the sound of my own voice, ha ha ha. Every job I've had has been a little different and with so many different types of class I can never get complacent. It suits me and inspires me to do better at it, so I feel passionate about it.

Now that I've been able to do a job I love, I must agree with all those books telling people to follow their passion. I just interpret it as 'find (and get qualified for) a job that suits your personality' more than 'throw caution to the wind and go pursue your favourite hobby as a job'.
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 22, 2013
I think Scott got it slightly wrong.

The advice "Follow your passion" is for those times where you know you're right about something, but there are obstacles that are trying to block your path.

If you don't believe in what you are doing, you won't be willing to push through or overcome the obstacles.
But naturally, you have to _actually_ be right about something. Otherwise you're chasing a ghost.

So while I disagree that the advice is !$%*!$%*! I do agree that its !$%*!$%* to broadcast it like its accessible to all. Because a lot of people don't even ask themselves the question whether they're heading in the right direction.
 
 
Feb 22, 2013

Scott,
Much of what you say is true.
So why is it that all the successful businessmen who write books talk about passion?

Let's take an extreme example.

Suppose a few men very passionately dedicate their lives to trying to turn ordinary metal into gold.

No dispassionate person will ever try to do this. Of the very few who attempt this insanity, let us assume that there will be one who succeeds.

Now what happens - he achieves the type of success which no dispassionate businessman can ever dream of achieving. Because he is such a great success, he writes a book and attributes his success to his passion.

He is entirely right. It is his passion that has made him a GREAT success. But this same passion has caused many others to fail miserably.

Thus the moral of the story: If you want to be a GREAT SUCCESS and are prepared to risk remaining a GREAT FAILURE, follow your passion.

If you look at spreadsheets before deciding what you want to do with the rest of your life, the odds are greater that you will be a success but unless you are driven by passion, you are unlikely to ever be a GREAT SUCCESS.

 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 22, 2013
The exact opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth - just change the context. (That is why statistics is such a devil). This is what seems to have happened here.

I am quoting Scott from an earlier post that "Passion, by definition, is something you cannot control - it controls you". Here he suggests that passion can be developed under right conditions. Maybe, we should use two altogether different words to avoid further confusion - I suggest "purpose" and "excitement". They represent two ends of the passion spectrum. Purpose is the part of our moist robot programming, and excitement can be developed in a bar with a few drinks.

"Follow your Purpose" is not even an advise - it IS going to drag you where it does. It still looks good in books and interviews, though. "Follow your excitement" is bad advise.
 
 
 
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