Passion is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to achievement of any kind (be it in business, sports, art or another field). This one emotion is supposedly at the foundation of every successful endeavor and is therefore deemed crucial. It is exalted by entrepreneurs and coaches alike, in hundreds of quotes buzzing around the internet. But, allow me to make a bold and controversial statement here:
Passion is overrated, and the amount of lip service we pay it might be harmful to budding entrepreneurs, and perhaps even to all young people.
For starters, passion is an ill-defined, slippery word that can mean different things to different people. Yes, it has a dictionary definition (several, in fact) but its overuse has muddled that and made it into a choose-your-own-meaning kind of word. For some it simply means a strong love for an activity or endeavor, with no other requirements. Others think of passion more actively, as living and breathing their beloved product, business, or subject area.
One thing many in the entrepreneurial space who throw the word around seem to imply is that it must be singular and immutable. You can only have one passion, from which you must never waver, and that must be the thing that you pursue as a career. This mentality is incredibly limiting and stifling.
A person’s passion can and often does change over time, as they grow and learn more about themselves and the world around them. It’s also possible (and perfectly fine!) to have multiple passions, and to make none of them your career. You can be passionate about baseball and painting and model airplanes, but unless you are extremely fortunate, you are unlikely to build your career or entrepreneurial success on the back of any of those things. Sometimes your passion is something that can be turned into a business, and sometimes it’s just something that gives you joy.
When I was in high school, cars were my passion. I loved learning everything about them and marveled at details that must have seemed boring to others. At one point, I allowed my passion for cars to direct my career, going to work for BMW DesignWorks. While I loved my job there, it wasn’t the association with cars that allowed me to feel fulfilled. Instead, it was my love of problem-solving that made me happy, and ultimately led me towards an even more fulfilling career in entrepreneurship and education. I would have never considered teaching to be a “passion” – far from it. I would often get frustrated with the education space, but that’s exactly why it ended up being a great industry for me to start a company. My frustrations with education and love of problem solving allowed me to innovate to solve those frustrations for others.
While some may be passionate about a handful of things, others may not be able to identify a passion, especially at a young age. According to a recent Stanford University study profiled in the Wall Street Journal, only 20% of 12 to 26 year-olds have “a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why.” The same study found that just 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their undergraduate majors.
Those are both extremely low numbers, meaning that the vast majority of people don’t have one distinct direction they want to take in life. It’s unfair and daunting to work under the assumption that without that precise early vision, a person cannot be successful.
Letting passion alone guide your startup is also problematic because it’s inherently self-focused. With passion as your highest goal, you may conflate small nuisances that bug you in your experience of the thing you love with big problems that thousands or millions of people care about. If the solution your startup provides is not critical or doesn’t revolutionize something vital, you may find that your product, idea, or app has trouble gaining traction. Keep in mind that consumers are inundated with many unnecessary solutions to nonexistent problems, and are therefore likely to tune out more noise without substance.
To be an entrepreneur, you have to look at the world around you, identify problems, and find unique ways to solve them. That’s hard when you are only thinking about what you want for yourself. Try asking, with an outward-facing mind: What problems do I want to solve? Then, think of how you can use and build upon your skills and knowledge to get there. Remember that being an entrepreneur should not be just about making you wealthy or giving you the freedom to spend all your time doing only the things that appeal to you.
Finally, this emphasis on passion obscures some of the other characteristics needed for a successful venture: dedication, tenacity, adaptability. Passion may be a great starting point, but dedication will cause you to put in long hours when things aren’t going well and you aren’t getting much instant gratification from the work you’re doing. Tenacity will help you push through negativity and road blocks to reach your goals. Adaptability will allow you to change course or adjust your strategy when what you’re doing just doesn’t work.
Passion won’t carry your product from idea to prototype to market-ready. It won’t do the work for you. It won’t give you the clarity to ensure you’re making the best decisions for your startup and brand. It can sometimes even cloud your judgement of the right path.
None of this to say passion doesn’t matter at all. It’s good to love and be excited about what you do. Just know that even if you do not fit someone else’s mold or check their list of what a passionate entrepreneur should be, that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. If you don’t live and breathe your product in a romanticized and over-the-top way, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth making. And if your passion happens to be something that isn’t lucrative, stop trying to monetize it and just enjoy doing it in addition to your career pursuits.