Does Passion Matter?

Posted on October 13, 2013
Filed Under Critical Thinking |

Scott Adams, the man behind Dilbert, has a new book out about career success. He discusses some concepts from the book in this Wall Street Journal article, and the most interesting thing to me in the article is his rejection of the conventional wisdom that you should “follow your passion.” Here is his explanation.

But the most dangerous case of all is when successful people directly give advice. For example, you often hear them say that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. 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, 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, who had been a commercial lender for over 30 years, said that the best loan customer is someone 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.

There are two schools of thought here. One says that passion is the thing that keeps you going when times get tough. The other says passion is fleeting and when you lose it, you give up too easily.

After nearly 5 years running Backupify, I definitely find myself in the latter camp. I look at a lot of the other startup companies of our vintage, and they were boom and bust. They rode high, much higher than we ever did in terms of hype and valuations, and then came crashing down. All the while, Backupify was grinding it out, slow and steady, constantly moving forward.

I can’t say that I had passion for cloud to cloud backup when I started. And even though I know so much about it now, and I love to talk about it, I’m not sure “passion” is the word I would use to describe my feelings. So what drove Backupify forward? Well, ask 5 different early employees that question and you will probably get 5 different answers. But here is what I think. I’ve always been a grinder. I was raised to be a grinder. My dad never preached “follow your passion” but rather “work hard and don’t be a drain on other people.” I’ve always had a lot of mental and physical stamina. In high school, college, and as an adult, I have always been able to focus longer, work harder, and deal with more crap than most people. In fact, when I raised the very first round of financing for Backupify, I pitched an at Open Angel Forum event at 7pm in LA, got on a red eye to Boston, tweaked my presentation during the flight, landed and went straight to the offices of General Catalyst to do another presentation on no sleep. (They invested).

I don’t think passion is a bad thing, but when it is the main thing you are looking for, beware that it is fleeting. I see this a lot in young employees versus more mature employees. Young employees read the startup blogs and want to come work for a startup where they can put their passion to work. They think startups should be fun. Mature employees realize that startups are harder, and more difficult, than other types of work. They are in it because they like the grind and are willing to tolerate all the extra crap because they know the career experiences are better. The battle scars help them climb the career ladder faster, learn more, and give them the opportunity to have an impact on the direction of the company.

Young employees often expect the passion to stay forever, and they give up when it is gone. They move on to the next passion, which is why they stay 2 years at every job, no longer. They blame the job because their bosses didn’t keep their passion engaged. They didn’t realize that it’s the people with the mental stamina to suck it up and work through their passion droughts who are ultimately successful.

So maybe Scott Adams missed something in his article. Maybe a “grinder” is just someone who has a passion for winning, a passion for pushing forward in the face of challenges, and a passion for growing as a person. Maybe the issue is that we encourage people to have the wrong kind of passion - passion for the thing instead of passion for the process or passion for the final goal.

There is a lot of research (see Carol Dweck) that says success is a matter of grit. That sounds like the key to being successful isn’t passion - it’s the ability to push forward even when the passion is gone.


3 Responses to “Does Passion Matter?”

  1. Theresa Quintanilla on October 15th, 2013 2:36 pm

    Yes, and, I appreciate what Scott says about passion flowing from success. Not flashy, public success, but focused, “hmm…I seem to be onto something here” success. In aesthetics we don’t say a work of art is valuable because it’s beautiful, we say it’s valuable because “it works”–some things the artist (or entrepreneur) chose are coming together to make meaning.

  2. laurence haughton on October 16th, 2013 1:15 pm

    “Character is the ability to sustain your momentum long after the mood has passed,” a mentor explained.

    I understood that to mean that if I did not grind and keep at it I lacked character. As I too was a natural grinder I told those without my grit, “they lacked character.”

    Then I realized as I raised a family I learned my take on the equation was backward.

    My job was to keep people in the mood and get protect them (as best I could) from anything (me especially) that ruined their mood.

    And so I developed a new way of finding, keeping and growing their passion. It’s not impossible, but it take a grinder to do it.

  3. laurence haughton on October 16th, 2013 1:20 pm

    Sorry for the typos… working on a new book. Topic: how great companies create cultures of urgency and growth. Hope to talk to you!

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    Rob is co-founder of He likes value investing, the Rolling Stones, college basketball, artificial intelligence, economic history and people who think independently.