Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Dark Side of Passion

There was a lot of great response to my post about the Passion Gap, but some people misunderstood it to mean that I fall in with the camp of career counselors who tell you to “do what you love and the money will follow”. While I believe that doing something you love is important, I also strongly believe that following your passion must be grounded in reality.

This first became clear to me when was in high school. Sometime during freshman year, they marched us all into the career center and made us look up the key facts on our ideal jobs. We had to find out good college majors to prepare us for those careers, the demand for people with those jobs, and the average pay we could expect. I looked up the job I’d be dreaming about since age 9, and I was incredibly disappointed at the average salaries. When my father was pushed into early retirement while I was a senior in high school, the cold hard reality of making a living was a key input in my eventual decision to study computer science.

To be completely clear, I’m incredibly happy with what I do - I love going to work every day. But I also love providing for my family.

Moderating your passion with realism is not at all inconsistent with having a deep enduring passion for your startup. Even Dennis Crowley, protagonist of the Passion Gap post, is on the record saying that the one thing he most wants to be good at is … karaoke. But belting out Whitesnake just doesn't pay the bills.

The dark side of passion is blindly following a passion that won’t support you. This post at Study Hacks goes so far as to make the argument that the “follow your passion” culture is responsible for the fact that self-reported job satisfaction rates have fallen every year since measurement started in 1987 - the argument is that because people are so focused on the perfect job, the one they can be most passionate about, they are ultimately disappointed by having simply a great job.

The unrealistic view that it’s sufficient to simply be passionate about something and not match that passion to reality is captured in this op-ed from the Times in 2009, in which the author describes a difficult search for work as an art instructor, despite qualifications including an MFA. The author admits, “In my master’s program, we … tried not to dwell on earthy, unpleasant topics like money, or how to make it.”

As I said in my earlier post, I deeply believe that passion can be a competitive advantage for startups, and I also think it’s crucial to success in most everything else, but that passion must be channeled in a way that is connected to reality.

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