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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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Feb 21, 2013
I've got two competing thoughts on this.

The first is it depends on the business. If you've got a business that can be run by spreadsheet or formula, then passion isn't needed. In this group are the things where passion could be a detriment and playing smart is key. If you have a business that needs passion and energy or can't be run by spreadsheet, then you need it. The second case includes businesses that need passion and desire to push them over the top and the rare few where being in it only for the money is the wrong direction. A general car dealership wouldn't need much passion but if you are selling hot rods and choppers, I'd take the guy who really loves cars over the guy who's just in it for the money.


The second thought is that passion for the issue alone is either irrelevant or a good or bad intangible and the business should be viewed primarily by the business case and the level of talent of the people involved. In this case, you'd take the better people with the better plan and passion takes a side seat.
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
"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?"

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. In fact, the passionate people I've met are all that and more. If you're passionate about something, you tend to be good at it by practice. You're all full of energy because you love doing what you do. The determination of success is completely different - you can be passionate and not care about success, but you can be not passionate and not care about success either. None of these parameters are mutually exclusive. In fact, being passionate, is a root cause for some of them.
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
I think you're 100% right. I've always been annoyed by the "passionate" people in projects, business ventures, etc, and pretty much avoid them like the plague.

They're the people most likely to have unrealistic goals and requirements at the beginning of a project, most likely to confront people about minor details, most likely to make ultimatums, and the most likely to flake out and leave you hanging when there's work to do. They won't consider contingencies (partial / incremental success) and always want to jump to step 6 because steps 1 - 5 are boring. In general, I find them to be wildly unrealistic and disruptive. And far-too-often have very little to bring to a project to begin with, expecting that their energy and "passion" will somehow contribute to an achievement.

Competent people are worried, reserved, and maybe fearful, because they know how much work there is, they know how much time it will take, and they know that they'll be miserable during steps 1-5. They plan for phases and start small -- working to improve their idea incrementally as parts are worked through. They think about ways that the idea could fail and try to plan away from those pitfalls.
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
Scott,

This is, hands down, without a doubt, the best post you've ever made here, bar none. It has really made me think, and examine some things in my own life.

There's only one question I have, but that will come at the end of this.

Here's some personal support for what Scott is saying. As those of you who follow my replies here know, I am a former Navy fighter pilot. Carrier based, of course, as are all such pilots.

I was good at it. But I didn't like it. It was stressful to the extreme. You have no idea how you feel trying to come aboard a carrier at night in bad weather with a pitching deck. It's like the worst, most violent ride in Disneyland you could ever imagine, with the added benefit that 1) you are controlling the ride, and 2) if you screw up even a little, you die. And so does the guy in the back seat.

My civilian career was in sales. I was good at it, but again I didn't like it. I sold big-ticket software. The sales cycle was often in excess of six months. I only had a few active prospects at a time. Losing an account that you had put six months of your life into is a crushing blow. You need to be able to handle rejection and defeat not once or twice, but every day of your career, and yet come back and go after the next one with the same energy and passion (there's that word, but with a different meaning) that you had the day before.

The job demanded a lot of travel, which sounds glamourous but isn't. The inside of one hotel looks pretty much like the inside of any other. Same with the inside of an airplane, or the inside of a rental car. Rare was the occasion when you traveled to another city and actually had time to enjoy the sights. You were always either planning or executing, with no time in between for anything else.

It was a stressful job that you didn't leave at the office at the end of the day. You were juggling a number of balls and couldn't afford to let any of them drop. My livelihood, and my families' security, depended on it. It consumed nights and weekends, and even vacations weren't vacations because you needed to keep things rolling along.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I am NOT complaining. I chose both careers with my eyes open. I only have myself to blame for the decisions I made. But a lot of what Scott says really strikes home.

So what do I have passion for? The wine industry, writing and teaching. I'm looking for a third career, or multiple jobs (you know the difference) in one of these or in some combination of them. I have passion for all of these, but I also am old enough to be realistic and understand that all three are business decisions and need to be treated as such. I am not going to let my passion get in the way of my common sense or a realistic evaluation of my abilities.

It is true that there are more failures than successes. At the same time, perseverance pays, passion or no passion. I think the biggest danger the passionate face is that they don't know when to quit, but the biggest danger everyone else faces is that they quit too early. The blind chasing of a dream can mean that you can give up other opportunities that could give you a better life. That's why so many would-be actors are parking cars or waiting tables.

My advice is to chase your dream when it's feasible to do so. But don't let it consume your life unless you're willing to let your life be wasted if you don't achieve your goals. Be realistic; if you can't carry a tune, then no matter how much passion you have for becoming a professional singer, it's doubtful that you'll make it. Don't be bull-headed. Listen to criticism, and thank those who give it to you for caring enough to do so; don't get angry when you get it. Life is not just about what you want; it's also about what those who are ultimately going to support you want, too.

Enough Gramps Phantom advice for today. My question for Scott is the obvious one, but one Scott may purposely not have addressed. The question is, Scott: did you have a passion for cartooning?








 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 21, 2013
I agree wholeheartedly with pretty much all of your theories on this one, with one addition: that loaning money to a venture (for an interest payment) is different from owning it as a VC or entrepreneur - which also differs slightly from a career path. As AtlantaDude points out, the bank only cares about the odds of being repaid with interest; they won't gain excess profit by taking bigger risks like the VC or entrepreneur will.

For example, if someone loaned money to each of your "dozens" of ventures, most would have gone bust and the interest payments on the others wouldn't have justified those losses. But clearly you've done well, and owning a piece of your overall profits and losses would have paid off handsomely because of a few outstanding successes.

For career advice, I'd say following your passion - in a disciplined, strategic way - is good advice. If you love to cook, perhaps become a chef. That doesn't mean you won't work at a restaurant that fails (most do), but you'll likely bounce back and do well over time. But I won't loan money to that restaurant (for the same reason banks don't).

Oh, and make sure your passion is marketable. If you have a passion for gender studies, good luck!
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
Learning about yourself by following your passion, finding out how to make yourself happy, and a great many other self-discovery behaviors are smart exercises for any person.

If we are to hold personal development to the same standards we hold for giving loan money out for new businesses, we are all screwed. Life and learning is a sloppy, wasteful process.
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
Not every passion is marketable. Sports enthusiast loves watching sports, loves reading about it and analyzing it. Running a sports store doesn't need any of these. It needs passion for running a store, sporty things are all secondary traits.
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
So you're saying I should choose to work at something I'm not passionate about? I fail to see the wisdom...

I understand what you're saying, because if someone is passionate about building mousetraps and builds the best of all possible mousetraps, there is no reason to believe this person also knows how to mass-produce and market that mousetrap.

But if I were to invest in a new mousetrap venture, I'd still want someone who is passionate about mousetraps. I'd just also want to make sure I was comfortable with the business side of the business: finance, marketing, sales, manufacturing, etc.
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
The banker is probably wise to avoid passion, because passion can cause people to overlook obstacles, and the banker is in the business of risk minimization. Conversely, venture capitalists typically look for entrepreneurs with passion, because the VCs know that unforeseen obstacles will arise, and a passionate entrepreneur is more likely to find a way past them.

Regarding the BS about attributing success to passion, I might suggest it is no more lame than attributing success to the power of positive thinking, which you, ahem, might know something about. Both attributions suffer from survival bias (i.e. only the successful write the books) and measurement error (it is hard to feel passionate or positive about a doubtful outcome).

[I appreciate your skepticism about positive thinking. But in my experience, positive thinking is more of a rational process, as in believing you have the skill and resources to execute a plan even if there are some unexpected hiccups along the way. Passion is more irrational. (And affirmations are a whole different deal, too much to discuss here, but certainly deserving of skepticism.) -- Scott
 
 
Feb 21, 2013
Reminds me of the career aptitude tests we took in high school. You mentioned the aptitude portion of passion, but there's also an environmental portion. Say you happen to have a marvelous sense of humor and making people laugh is your passion. But are you the type that needs face-to-face interaction (a stand-up comic), or someone who doesn't mind working alone and under a deadline (cartoonist, author or screen-writer). You love plants - do you want to be outdoors (farmer, landscaper), or indoors (florist, garden shop owner). Figuring out what environment you thrive in is an important part of the equation.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 21, 2013
I think the key question is figuring out what someone is REALLY passionate about.

A gambling addict is surely not someone you loan money for setting up a casino.

Being passionate about sports is way too fuzzy as well. You can't derive from this that that guy would be passionate about selling sports equipment, designing commercials about his shop or forging a passionate sales team. Maybe all he is passionate about is watching soccer with a bag of chips and a bottle of beer.

So, what must one be passionate /about/ in order to succeed as an entrepeneur?
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 21, 2013
"Follow your passion" works good as a basic rule of thumb, but as you point out it's one factor among many. However, it's still decent advice to give if need to be brief or are writing motivational posters. This blog post is basically what I have been teaching my son over the years. I'll have him read it when he gets home from school and use it as another way of ingraining these lessons. Thanks.
 
 
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 21, 2013
There's also one more fallacy.

Buying a lottery ticket gives you a small percentage of becoming amazingly wealthy. Lottery winners will stick out and be able to trace their wealth to the lottery.

People who grind out a moderately successful career are largely invisible, and aren't asked to write books and give interviews about the keys to their success. Nor are people who make themselves poorer buying lottery tickets called to account for why they are poor.

I think "following your passion" is akin to buying a lottery ticket. Some will have talent and have a passion that is marketable, like Steve Jobs. Most won't. But the winners are the ones who write books.
 
 
 
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