Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Passion" as a verb

At one seminar where I was speaking on the concept of proactivity, a man came up and said, “... I’m really worried. My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her any more and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he affirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“Love her.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love -- the feeling -- is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”

There’s a lot of literature of late about the role of passion in one’s work, specifically about how blindly pursuing one’s passion could be a terrible career choice: Cal Newport studies successful people and finds that they became passionate about their work only after they have cultivated the skills to become very good at what they do. Scott Adams writes that for him, “success caused passion more than passion caused success.”

I think passion is very similar to romantic love. Both are mostly thought of as feelings, but both can be actions. The feelings usually motivate actions, but the actions themselves can intensify the feelings, creating a positive feedback loop. Analogous to the above dialog, passion for one’s work (the feeling) can be cultivated by being more passionate (action) about it. Passion -- the feeling -- is a fruit of being passionate, the verb. The grind. The appreciation. The patience. The discovery.

This is useful because rather than thinking of passion as something magical that happens when we choose the right field, passion becomes something that we can control. I’m sure you can think of people in your life that are very energetic and passionate about everything -- not necessarily because the fields they engage in are all intrinsically engaging -- but because they put in the effort, energy, and patience to really appreciate the nuance and beauty in everything they do.

Especially in the startup world, people talk about “passion” as a must-have for a founder. The number one advice I’ve received from mentors is to “pick a problem that you’re passionate about”. Sure enough, investors also look for passion; they find that founders who are most passionate seem to be running the more successful startups.

But I think we are mixing up the cause and effect. Newport provides evidence that passion doesn’t come from a vacuum, or even from “picking” the “right” field. Passion comes from mastery and success, rather than the other way around. Thought in this way, it still make sense for investors to look for passionate founders -- because chances are, their mastery and success of the business are fuelling their passion!

Thus, a better way to rephrase the same advice for startups founders is to be sure that you have already cultivated passionate about your field or industry.

Along the same line, a better advice for the general public would be to be a passionate person -- find ways to love your work, and then you will become passionate about it.