Starting a Business? Don’t Follow Your Passion

Scott Adams, creator of the popular Dilbert cartoon has two key pieces of advice for those of us who would like to start our own business and make a success of it:

  1. Don’t set goals, create systems instead.
  2. Do not follow your passion.

Should you follow your passion or not? This is a very interesting one as it’s one of those issues that the successful entrepreneurs of the world are divided on, with each side believing that their answer is absolutely the right one.

When two groups are in such stark disagreement about something then it’s unlikely that either of them have the answer. The answer is instead going to be more nuanced than just “do” or “do not” follow your passion. What I think Adams is saying is, “(if you want to maximise your chances of succeeding then) do not follow your passion”.

This is the same as my advice would be to prospective PhD students, namely that when choosing your topic there are many criteria that will help you increase the likelihood that you finish on time (or ever), with passion being right at the bottom. One key reason for this is that you need to make it through the first year filter, which is where the university essentially decides whether or not to invest in you.

People maybe don’t think of universities investing in students but when it comes to PhD students this is exactly what they do. They invest around £40,000 in you over three years (in the UK) and they like to see a return on this investment. For them, a return would be that you pass (thus helping their rankings) and that you publish as widely as possible at the best conferences and in the best journals.

So, when it comes to evaluating you at the end of your first year they are looking at what you’ve done and they will be wanting to see that you have already either had some work published or that you show clear evidence that publications are coming. Failing that they will be evaluating the work you have done on its merits as research; they will care not one bit for your passion or your belief that your PhD research will be a success. This is for your own good as well as for theirs: you can be exceptionally bright and passionate and still fail in the PhD program. In fact I will go as far as to say that having passion for your topic (particularly in the sciences) is likely to be a hindrance to you and potentially dangerous if it causes you to (perhaps even subconsciously) resist evidence against your thesis and cherry-pick positive results.

Particularly in the sciences there is an absolute need to be able to divorce oneself emotionally from the work, let it stand on its own as a body of work and if it turns out to be fundamentally flawed, to be ready to scrap it and move on. If you have self-identified with your work and it is your passion, your life’s work even, then you may find it much harder to accept criticism or the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong about your work. Your ‘investors’ won’t be persuaded by it either and you will not make it to the 2nd year of the program.

When starting businesses then the same is true more often than it is not: the business that looks good on a spreadsheet (i.e. has revenue, and profit) is far more likely to be around in 3 years than the one with the passionate founders who believe that it’s going to work. Which business would you back, one that has been developed through an evidence-based process (e.g. using lean methodologies) or the one with the passionate founders with the laser focus? I would say that the passion-based approach can only work if it just so happens that the idea you are passionate about happens to be spot on already. The chance of this being the case in practical terms would seem to be vanishingly small.

Consider the lean methodology which is currently enjoying immense popularity. With lean, a passion for evidence-based learning of product-market fit is what is espoused. This is the kind of passion that I think should be developed: if you’re in business, then a passion for serving your customers, learning about their needs and producing solutions that delight them sounds far more robust than ploughing ahead with one idea that you’re passionate about, even when those around you are expressing grave concerns about it. Then in research, be passionate about the scientific process (which the lean methodology borrows from) and actively seek out evidence to negate your hypotheses, learn, and turn that learning into published work that other researchers can build on top of.

What this amounts to is a passion for the process, not the product. The product is a result of application of the process, and as Adams says, when endeavours go well they generate their own enthusiasm whereas a failing venture, no matter how great the initial enthusiasm was, is a passion killer.

Another reason to follow an evidence-based approach is that in both research and business you will always encounter setbacks. If your energy for the work comes from a love of the idea then major setbacks will be blows that will be hard to weather and get past. If instead you are endeavouring to execute the process of scientific research, or evidence-based business development then such setbacks are already baked into the plan: they are as much a part of the learning process as the parts that go well. As such, a process-driven researcher or entrepreneur will have fewer ups and downs and I believe a higher chance of eventual success in not just their first endeavour but in all that follow.

So, if you are struggling to choose a problem to tackle in the world in research or in business, don’t worry that you’re not feeling passionate about it. Remember that you are aiming to be a good entrepreneur, or a good scientist, and look instead to what the world needs and what will make sense as a business or research topic. When the going gets tough, the fact that your endeavour is contributing value to the world will feed energy back to you and your team. If you rely on passion, then you’re burning through a fixed quantity of fuel that might start high but is not being actively replenished and will ultimately run out. A quick test is this: without you does the work stand alone and still provide the same value? If so then you are truly contributing something that is much more than just a project that you perhaps have a great enthusiasm for.