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The Limitations of Passion

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I have spent my life in trades that attract passionate people: politics, music, marketing/advertising and entrepreneurship. And so I’ve wondered: why do so many passionate people fail? If I believed most commencement addresses, I would think passion is the number one factor for success!

A few months ago, Seth Godin’s daily blog headlined: “Work Before Passion”. Roughly, he states:

  • Nothing is good enough to earn your passion before you do it
  • Given a chance to contribute, I’ll work hard.  Then, with focus, and once I begin to make progress, I’ll become passionate
  • Passion comes from feeling needed, from approaching mastery, from doing work that matters

According to Seth, passion is a good goal but only builds if we work hard at something that has meaning to us. Looking back, that makes sense to me.

I did not have passion for music when I plunked a few notes on my first guitar at age 13 but it built up until at around 21 I realized it would be my avocation instead of my vocation. The passion remains in its proper place, I play out occasionally which requires hard work but mostly I just play for personal joy.

What seemed like passion for politics began at age 12 when I met a congressional candidate who asked me to distribute flyers for him in my neighborhood. After he was elected, I visited him in Washington and decided politics would be my career. I built my skill as a professional organizer during college and for four years after graduation before I realized the passion was gone.

Advertising then became my work and later my passion, and it remains.

Then , at 34, I lost my corporate advertising job. An outplacement firm did extensive behavioral tests to identify my strongest strengths and my greatest weaknesses. (They are usually connected, by the way.) The result? I was best at any form of teaching, particularly consulting and I was worst in a group dynamic. As a result, I started a business a few months later as an independent marketing consultant.

Was I passionate about consulting? No, I’d spent my corporate life making fun of the trade. Was I passionate about entrepreneurial ventures? No, my risk tolerance at the time was very low. Solo marketing consulting did not “earn my passion” until it started feeding me and my family. Then, just as Seth suggests, I sought to “approach mastery in work that mattered”. It’s turned out well.

Many folks’ passion outweighs their resilience. We get convinced that our love for cooking or music or manufacturing will bring us fame and fortune. But “passion first” makes for a very risky strategy. And feigning passion, as I did for a time in politics and corporate life makes one miserable.

Does passion cause you to bang your head against a wall? Are you chasing a passion before putting the hard work in to be sure you are pursuing mastery in work that matters to you? Are you still working at something after your passion’s been lost?

As Seth says, the passion comes (or goes) AFTER the work.


Tim McCarthy

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