Entrepreneurial Passion: Good Servant, Poor Master

Entrepreneurial passion has to be based on a desire to create value, to be of service to a set of target customers. There may be many things you are interested in learning and room enough in your life for several hobbies, but pursuing a passion without regard to your ability to provide value in a way that is competitively differentiated is to pursue a hobby.

Mike Rowe on Entrepreneurial Passion

Mike Rowe makes this clear in his answer to a question from Stephen Adams of Auburn AL: “I’m confused by your directive to NOT “follow your passion.” I think it can be safely argued that if no one followed their passion, companies like Apple, Microsoft, Dow, and many more wouldn’t exist. If no one follows their passion, who innovates? Who founds companies that provide jobs for the outstanding workers that your foundation aims to help?” Here are some excerpts:

Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?

I think you have to persist, especially in an entrepreneurial effort, long enough to achieve expertise and mastery. And one component of that persistence has to be the willingness to engage in deliberate practice, to focus on what you don’t know, what’s risky, and where you need to improve. And that requires commitment. But if you can be passionate about helping people or creating value for people you can tolerate the drudgery and schlepping necessary to debug your business model and make it work.

When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society, I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.”

Part of differentiation is a willingness to do things others are not able or willing to do. Running toward problems that others are running away from and walking away from opportunities everyone is flocking to are two good rules of thumb for competitive differentiation

Every time I watch The Oscars, I cringe when some famous movie star – trophy in hand – starts to deconstruct the secret to happiness. It’s always the same thing, and I can never hit “mute” fast enough to escape the inevitable cliches. “Don’t give up on your dreams kids, no matter what.” “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes.” And of course, “Always follow your passion!”

This lack of a stopping rule–never give up–most often leads to bankruptcy. Adjusting your aims based on what you have learned, about the market, about the real customer problem, about what you are good at, is just common sense. If you stick with the plan and vector you picked when you had the least information, you are far less likely to succeed than if you make periodic adjustments based on events and the intermediate results of your efforts.

Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities.

This is also an opportunity for entrepreneurs: learn a trade that makes you economically self-sufficient and you can use that to bootstrap into your own business. At a time when corporate loyalty to employees is approaching zero it’s foolish not to plan for your own self-sufficiency.

There are many examples – including those you mention – of passionate people with big dreams who stayed the course, worked hard, overcame adversity, and changed the world though sheer pluck and determination. We love stories that begin with a dream, and culminate when that dream comes true. And to your question, we would surely be worse off without the likes of Bill Gates and Thomas Edison and all the other innovators and Captains of Industry. But from my perspective, I don’t see a shortage of people who are willing to dream big. I see people struggling because their reach has exceeded their grasp.

Too often I see people who want to be entrepreneurs who have very little idea of what’s actually required. Not only in terms of preparation, business savvy, but also the ability to continue adjust your plans and business model based on results. Too many entrepreneurs think they are just one or two adjustments away from a working model when the real answer is more like 30 or 40, and even then competitors and events can conspire to obsolete what was working so well just last month.

When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfathers footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.

My family business was the law: my father, grandfather, one uncle, and two cousins all became attorneys. I am certainly argumentative enough to qualify but early on I had much more of an interest in math and science and systems. I admire the good lawyer’s commitment to tradition and precedent–often they are solutions to problems we forgot that we have because we have solved them so well.

That’s why I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

Passion is helpful to sustain you on your entrepreneurial journey but it’s not enough. You need ongoing assessment, calculation, planning, hypothesizing, experimentation, and adjustments to your course of action based on what you have learned.

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