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The Entrepreneur’s Drive: Passion or Sweat?

Passion is what drives the entrepreneur to invest superhuman effort in a new venture or product, right? Actually, we may have it backwards

The essentials

Steve Jobs once said, “If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” Indeed, the dominant view in entrepreneurship research is that the decision to pursue a new venture is driven by love at first sight: it’s entrepreneurial passion that motivates individuals to invest effort in a new venture. Matthias Spitzmuller of Smith School of Business at Queen’s University begs to differ. Based on a study of entrepreneurs conducted with colleagues*, Spitzmuller proposes a more cool-headed theory of what drives entrepreneurship. In this conversation with Smith Business Insight, he discusses a new perspective on the relationship between entrepreneurial effort and passion and what makes entrepreneurs great. 

What We Do Shapes How We Look at the World

We felt that the importance of passion and the emotional states of entrepreneurs was overstated in the existing literature on entrepreneurship. For example, a very influential paper by Melissa Cardon (Pace University) and colleagues argues that passion about your business idea is a key driver of entrepreneurial success. Restated, you have to be very passionate about your customers, products, and employees, and this is what is ultimately going to translate into entrepreneurial success. 

What's been assumed by most of the existing research on entrepreneurship is that emotions drive what we do. What we believe, however, is that ultimately it's much more under our own control, that what we do will shape how we look at the world and how passionate we are about things.  

To test our predictions, we conducted a weekly field study over eight weeks with 54 entrepreneurs who reported entrepreneurial passion and effort. We also conducted an experiment in a lab setting to investigate the effect of effort on passion and the underlying psychological processes. The results showed that entrepreneurial effort predicted changes in entrepreneurial passion. In other words, the main driver of success is how much effort you put into your venture; passion will ultimately follow from that. 

Don’t Wait for an Epiphany

The message from the research is that you shouldn’t expect there’s one area that immediately gets all of your attention and that resonates with you. Even if you’re part of a venture team that doesn’t have a very exciting product that you can identify with, as long as you take a free decision to invest a lot of effort, chances are you’ll become passionate for your venture and ultimately be successful.

When I talk to my students, I often hear, “I don’t know what excites me.” It’s not so much a question of sitting under a tree and waiting for an apple to fall on you before you know what you’re excited about. You have to make a choice and invest in that choice, and ultimately you’ll find that passion will follow.

If I reflect on my own career, it’s been very much like that. I’ve questioned the meaning of my business education in my first two years of study, but once I invested a lot of effort and energy into my studies, I suddenly experienced the passion and saw meaning in my studies that I couldn’t see before. 

Discover Your Entrepreneurial Greatness

What we really hope is that people realize that being a passionate entrepreneur is not something you’re just born with. If we think of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, some of the great entrepreneurs of our time, we think of these people as people with extraordinary gifts and talents that were born with this passion to do something. 

Success is oftentimes just a function of getting your hands dirty and starting to invest into a venture that will eventually start to grow. This is a change in mindset that could transform the orientation of our students at Queen’s and the general public about becoming an entrepreneur. 

Interview by Sarah Dowler

* Note: This research was conducted with Michael M. Gielnik (Leuphana University of Luneburg); Antje Schmitt (University of Kassel); D. Katharina Klemann (Klemann Consultancy); and Michael Frese (National University of Singapore and Leuphana University of Luneburg). Their paper, “ ‘I put in effort, therefore I am passionate’; Investigating the path from effort to passion in entrepreneurship”, was published in Academy of Management Journal (2015, Vol. 58, No. 4, 1012–1031).

Al Etmanski
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Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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