Don't follow your passion
“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Confucius. As a co-founder of a social enterprise startup, that uses skills based volunteering to disrupt how NGOs and social enterprises access skills in Asia, you might be surprised to know that I don’t actually believe in following your passion.
In fact, I think it might be the worst business advice ever.
My brush with “finding my passion”, came from an all time career low. In the summer of 2010, I was negotiating the resolution of a knotty IP matter in mainland China. After several months, of increasingly circular, heated and acrimonious discussions in stifling meeting rooms - each side had lost a lot of face. On my career D-day, tension hit boiling point, people from both sides raised their voices and slashed the air with angry gestures as talked over each other in Chinese and English.
To marshal the discussion, I cut off a very animated lawyer by putting my hand near their face. After we were spent for the day and the exhausted participants had slunk out of the room, I slumped down in my chair and wondered what kind of person I had just become. Later on, thinking that my mum raised me to be better than this and that brawling like a guest on a 90s talk show, was a terrible waste of 7 years of higher education, I set off to find my passion and engage in more fulfilling work.
As anyone who has ever tried to find their passion can attest, it can be lot more work than a regular job. I engaged multiple career and business coaches, took online courses, connected with my inner voice in guided meditations, consulted books, journalled, took long solo runs, interrogated my friends and family and completed many, many personality tests. As any avid user of online dating could tell you, my lists of passions were pretty generic. They included: reading, getting curious about other people, travelling in Asia, running, swing dancing and most of all, creating raw food (which was really a non-starter for a new business in mainland China given local antipathy towards uncooked food).
Despite this long list of passions, I was very short on actual direction. The problem was, that when I looked inside myself to find my passion - it was all about me i.e. my budding skills, my preferences and what I wanted to do.
“Find your passion and do that for your job”, is such a terrible idea because in the world of business (and in life), you get rewarded not for what you take for yourself but for the value that you offer to other people. By focusing on yourself, you miss on the on the key question for the entrepreneurial journey, which is what can I offer to others? Is what I am offering, valuable to others? How can I be of service?
For so many entrepreneurs, particularly for female entrepreneurs the words “find your passion” and “follow your inspiration” get thrown about a lot. As if when you are really doing it right and you really find what sets you on fire, it will be enough to bring on instantaneous business success and sustain you through weekdays of uncertainty, trial and error, failure and incompetence. Dark days, when your website, user acquisition and sales efforts are all tanking simultaneously, and you want to run howling back to the safety of a corporate job.
So what’s the antidote – if you don’t follow your passion, should you just give up and stay doing something you hate? Of course not, that way leads to early cocktails, fatty livers and general crankiness.
If you are a business curious entrepreneur just starting off or struggling to create a business from your passions, here are a couple of tips that might be helpful to help you go from finding your passion to creating value:
- Find a cause or a problem that’s worthy of your time. Your time is precious and limited. Focus on solving a specific problem that you can be proud to be associated with, and where the outcome you will create is congruent with your values.
- Get curious and work out what the problem actually is and what’s causing it. Talk to and fall in love with your potential clients. When you know them inside out, work out how you can add value to them. Use this market intelligence to inform your product and marketing. Then its time to market the hell out of your particular product or service.
- Work out where you fit and what your abilities are. These may not be the same as your passion. For example, I love modern art, but I am not a creative visual thinker. There is a good reason why my business partner is in charge of our logo design process.
- Most importantly, commit to getting good at what you are doing and know that you will be in it for the long haul. “Finding your passion” is easy to say but perhaps it is a cloak for something different. I suspect that what we all want to feel when we are finding our passion is underlying deep satisfaction that comes from creating useful things. Most of this satisfaction comes not from working from the place of our passions but from gradually improving at what we are doing until we get good at actually creating something useful. Show up and do worthwhile work, enjoy the improvements and then you will love what you do.
The entrepreneurial road is not for the faint hearted. So, make it easier on yourself and don’t follow your passion.