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Fri 23 Feb 2018 03:53 PM

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Opinion: Why passion is overrated in business

Do you need to be passionate about what you do, or is it something else that helps entrepreneurs succeed?

Opinion: Why passion is overrated in business
Is passion really a necessary business commodity? Mark Cuban says no.

One of the joys of being in journalism is speaking with entrepreneurs, experts, and leaders in the business community and discussing how they found success in their respective fields. Time and again, however, it can also be dispiriting to hear them use tired old adages to describe the key determinants to their success: “Innovation is in our DNA”, they say, adding “challenges are opportunities” that require “out of the box thinking”.

Which brings us to the oft-heard belief in “passion”. Some otherwise inspiring entrepreneurs and industry leaders cite it as a defining characteristic. But last week, it prompted billionaire serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban to call it, “One of the great lies of life everyone tells you.”

Can passion produce?

Passion is markedly absent from the factors of production that economists use to describe what translates into economic activity: land, labour and capital. Debate rages on whether to include entrepreneurship, with advocates – often American, such as JB Clark who was among the pioneers of the notion – saying that those who take on all the risk of a business do so based on the intellectual capital they possess. That intellectual capital is the combination of a history of acquiring skills, mitigating risks and identifying market demand where opportunities reside.

It could be argued that intellectual capital couldn’t be accumulated and applied to a business were the entrepreneur not excited by something in the first place. True, but it still isn’t the entire answer to the puzzle – just part of it. If it were, then we might as well add dumb luck to the list of factors of production. Or the ability to “embrace failure”.

Instead, Cuban says where you put your time is where your best skills are. “Passion isn’t what you need to focus on,” he says. “If you put in enough time you get really good. And nobody quits anything they’re good at, because it’s fun to be good, to be the best [at something].”

The right motivation

The study of motivation in the workplace is a big part of the curriculum in business school, and the arena in which we learned about the works of psychologists such as Frederic Herzberg and David McGregor, who both contributed immensely to the field. The latter’s theory of needs, for instance, posits that there are three drivers to what makes people put effort into what they do: achievement, affiliation and power. People work hard if they feel they will reach an end goal, be recognised for it, and/or be rewarded.

And it makes sense. Building a business is an achievement, as is sealing a deal, creating a product or meeting a deadline. If what you do makes a difference, you’ll get invited to get-togethers after work or be asked to join in on an important meeting. If you play your cards right, you could be promoted to a role where you find the word “chief” on your business card. Where does passion fall on the hierarchy of needs?

Take the cloud for instance: Is there anyone who could actually be passionate about the cloud – to live it, breathe it and wake up in the morning just to tell people about it? Because that’s what passion really requires. An all-raging, all consuming, insatiable thirst for something. Like, music, a football team or the films of Jim Jarmusch. For that reason, passion is probably not what many mean when they describe what makes them tick.

Maybe the right word to use is “enthusiasm”.