Why Entrepreneurial Passion Is Overrated

Forget the romanticized view: brute effort, not passion, will get your enterprise off the ground
Young entrepreneur eating pizza while working late in his office

The essentials

It has become almost accepted wisdom that passion is the fuel that shoots new enterprises into orbit. But what if the relationship between passion and perseverance is all wrong? Maybe the focus should be on brute effort instead, says Matthias Spitzmuller, associate professor and Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business. Spitzmuller explains what his research shows in this conversation with Smith Business Insight. To hear the full interview, listen to The Start-up Cycle podcast.

What do we misunderstand about the relationship between passion and perseverance?

When we think about passion, we believe that if you don’t have it to begin with, your venture is not going to be successful. You won’t be able to overcome obstacles. What we find in our research, however, is that the first step in the venture is the effort that an entrepreneur invests into the creation of a company — [which is] just really hard work. The effort ultimately drives the passion. Once you have invested more and more, you become increasingly invested in the idea of the company that you’re growing. 

But surely you need some sort of spark of passion to start the initiative?

You do need a commitment, whether the commitment derives from passion or from an interest in a product or a service or from much more mundane things such as perceived opportunities in the marketplace. There has to be a commitment at the beginning that gets effort going. But passion is this warm, fuzzy feeling, this sense of identity that you want to express through your venture. It doesn't have to be as strong at the beginning. Instead, it can follow from the effort that you invest into your business and the initial successes that you accumulate along the road.

So we shouldn’t sit around waiting to feel passionate about something to start a company.

That is exactly the key message, and it is not just important in the context of entrepreneurship. The same applies to pretty much everything we do in our lives. Oftentimes we have this feeling that we just have to find this passion in us and wake up. And then we just get going until the end of our days. And that is not true. Passion is something that you have to work for, that you have to make your own through hard work. 

Do you have any examples?

If we look at the entrepreneurs that we have worked with in our research, many of whom are in African countries – Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya – for many of those entrepreneurs, their venture is not the product of a strong identification with what they do. This is an opportunity to make a living, but they become passionate over time. They become passionate as they realize that, ‘Wow, I have my first paying customer’ or ‘I have the first employee who is making a living off my venture’. And that is how passion grows. This might be an extreme context because entrepreneurship in an African context is certainly different from the types of ventures that we often study in our context. But it still makes the point that passion develops along the way as a function of hard work and early successes. 

It feels like a very Western way to think about things. 

With the Western worldview, we often believe that we have this intrinsic drive that we just have to identify and wake up and, once identified, will just carry you all the way to the finish line. 

I see that a lot with my students that I teach here at Smith. There is a great anxiety in many of them. They say, ‘I haven’t found this passion yet’ and ‘I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to do here’. What I tell them is that this is normal. Essentially what you have to do is to pick a field that interests you and then make it your own through the progress that you make, the people you get to know, and the excitement that you generate with products and services. That, ultimately, will create your passion. 

If you were going to give us one takeaway for aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be? 

Without hard work you won't be able to succeed. Some entrepreneurs tell me that, ‘When I started my business, I wanted to move away from my 60-hour work and have control over my schedule.’ Then it turned out that they were working even more hours than they did before and they were much more psychologically invested in it. This belief that you have to be absolutely in love with your company from day one is over-romanticized and a dysfunctional view of the process of entrepreneurship. 

When does it morph from feeling like hard work to feeling like something you want to be doing? 

The process develops relatively fast. We have seen in the study we conducted that usually passion develops within the first year, but the passion doesn't necessarily have to be that strong intensity from day one. But I would agree that if you haven't developed that passion after a year of trying to grow your venture, you're probably not going to be able to stick it out and you're probably not going to be able to still grow that venture after you encounter the first obstacles. And, every entrepreneur knows very well, lots of obstacles will come your way.

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