Find your passion. Follow your dreams. Do what you love. This seems to be the standard advice straight from the budding entrepreneur’s manual, but is it really that useful? Over and over (especially in ads) we’re exhorted to start with a passion—some burning compulsion for cooking or photography or or rollerblading—and monetize it. We’re told that in the Land of Opportunity, making it as an independent business person comes down to simply tapping into our heart’s desire and building a business model around it.
I think this approach holds people back. I think it discourages real and viable entrepreneurship.
The problem with passion is twofold. First, not everyone has a “passion.” Real passion, the kind that drives starving artists and weekend rock-climbers alike, is actually not that common. Most people are passionate about their families, not their hobbies. Secondly, not every passion makes for a viable business. Yes, Steve Jobs had passion. So does the lady down the street with a separate custom sweater featuring a screenprinted image of each one of her 17 cats.
I think there must be a significant number of would-be, could-be entrepreneurs out there who haven’t started a business simply because they can’t identify their “passion.” I think this is tragic, because I think that passion, at least as the basis of a business, is seriously overrated.
Why Passion Doesn’t Work
Building a business around a passion is far easier said than done. You might enjoy something, but doing it for a living may quickly turn that labor of love into a chore. You may love cooking for the family around the holidays, but 60 hours a week in a kitchen may turn that passion for cooking into a passion for quitting.
Frankly, the notion that anyone’s living should be a passion project is a little smug, since the vast majority of working humans don’t make their living that way. For most of us, reality doesn’t consist of chasing the fulfillment of some personal obsession. It requires making ourselves valuable to our employers, our customers, and the families we help support with our paychecks. If someone can make a living off of their passion, great. That someone is exceptionally fortunate, not necessarily savvy.
Rather than asking yourself what your passion is, a wiser approach might be to ask yourself what your value is. What skills, interests, or expertise do you possess that people would pay to access? To paraphrase a president, ask not what you can do for yourself; ask what you can do that’s worth something to others. People who make money from their true passion aren’t rare because they’re the only ones bold enough to follow their hearts. They’re rare because most people’s private interests aren’t worth money to anyone else.
Identify Your Value
Your abilities, not your passion, are what can form the basis of a viable independent business. By recognizing problems that you can solve for other people, you define what makes you uniquely positioned to address the needs of potential customers. What’s the most valuable service you can render?
I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve parlayed a relatively uncommon combination of both business and educational experience to create an alternative to traditional business schooling. I didn’t grow up with a burning desire to do this. I don’t create business tutorials in my spare time for fun. I have simply recognized that I’m able to provide something that certain people want, and that not many people offer.
There are multiple ways to find value in each person’s unique set of experiences—which is why choosing your “passion” is so limiting. Again, take me: I happen to be Egyptian. I spent most of my childhood splitting time between Egypt and the US, growing up fluent in the languages and cultures of both places. Again, this is not a passion, but it has potential value. Tourists, educators, and business people traveling between the two places would benefit greatly from my intimate knowledge of two very different places. How many business opportunities might that represent?
Of course, discovering your own unique value isn’t easy. Many people don’t have an obvious talent or skill that leaps out and declares itself the basis of a potential business. My being Egyptian doesn’t seem like a product to me; it’s just who I am. It’s easy to overlook your own potential value, because most of us don’t think of ourselves as a collection of business proposals. If you’re stumped as to what yours is, ask around. Friends, family, and coworkers can offer perspective. For what do people come to you? On what do they seek your advice?
Action Over Passion
Even once they’ve identified their potential value, many would-be entrepreneurs fear that they’re not valuable enough. You may not think that your skills or expertise really qualify you as an authority. Again, a dose of calm realism can help. Consumers don’t need a guru. Your average customer doesn’t need the world’s leading authority in the same way your average school kid doesn’t need Stephen Hawking for a physics teacher. All people need is someone who can give them more than they can give themselves.
In fact, entrepreneurs who position themselves as gurus tend to be (or at least come off as) scammers. Often, all consumers want is someone who’s been a little farther down the road than they have. You only need above-average experience, and honesty about how far above average it is. To savvy consumers in the Internet Age, an honest, relatable person selling their expertise—with all its flaws and limitations—is preferable to a self-professed messiah.
Try this exercise: List 3 or 4 things with which you have unique experience. Then see which of those experiences could potentially be monetized. Which of them could be converted into a product? Some of them may even be genuine passions, but the point is that they don’t have to be. The only qualification is that they represent something you can do for people that many can’t do for themselves.
Next, sell something. Anything. From your list, create one product. Write an e-book, create a course, hold a paid webinar; the options are many. Simply develop one small product and exchange it for money. It doesn’t matter if you make $100 or $5. The point is proof of concept. Get your feet wet in the art of monetizing your value. It’s not about turning your love of baking into a multi-million dollar empire. It’s about developing your ability to make money by sharing a skill. Start with one product, and move from there.
Down the road, you can decide what to develop into a real business. Try several different products. See how the process of converting your most valuable traits into pay works. That process is what will eventually reveal the path to a solid, viable independent business model. It’s not about being the best at something, or caring about it more than anyone else. It’s about establishing a minimum viable product, and developing the skill of moving it.
So many potential entrepreneurs never get started because they think they don’t have what it takes—things like fame, capital, or an expensive education. The truth is that in a free market, none of those things are requirements. I would argue that neither is passion.