Passion Ain’t Easy, but It’s Necessary. Here’s Why.
Choosing a passion-based career can be harder, scarier, and more uncertain (but still the very best choice).
I think I messed up.
I am so excited about the ideas underlying the Passion Economy that I have focused — in the book, the podcast, and this newsletter — on the happy, good news. And, yes, there is a lot of that. But there are some harsh truths, too. Let me lay those out:
Just because it is YOUR passion, doesn’t mean you automatically get to make a career out of it.
If you want to have a passion-based career, you do need a passion. Figuring out your passion can take some time, often many years. Once you know your passion, though, you are far from done. The great challenge is matching your passion with customers. You have to find people who want whatever it is you are offering and are willing to pay for it.
In many cases, this means adjusting your offering to better match demand. This can involve some minor tweaks or a dramatic overhaul in how you think about your work. I’ll be writing a lot about this in coming weeks, because it is so crucial and can take many forms. Sometimes, you get to keep your passion pretty much intact, but have to learn to talk about and present it in a new way that better matches what people are seeking. Other times, you need to fundamentally re-think your passion.
You may have to compromise on the things that matter most to you. That can be awful.
You don’t get a passion business until you are staring at a spreadsheet.
This is the part I hate the most. A passion business is a business. That means that you need to know your costs and your time commitment, and you have to set your prices so that you can make the whole thing operate.
Many years ago, long before we met, my wife Jen made beautiful greeting cards as a side hustle. She would buy gorgeous paper and cut out shapes and pictures from magazines, to create these three-dimensional objects that were stunning. She took them to a local shop, and they agreed to sell them at a price that seemed reasonable. After a few weeks, Jen noticed that the more she sold, the less money she had. She finally did the math. The cards cost more in raw materials than she was selling them for.
This is very common, I have found. In some special cases, it can make sense for a while. Fast-growing companies, expanding quickly and grabbing up market share, sometimes see a profit as a bad sign. It means they’ve run out of new areas in which to invest. But that is probably not your situation. You should be making more money than you are spending. And that takes serious work and some difficult choices.
One of the most common mistakes I see is trusting the passion over financial sense. This can happen when a new business commits to a gorgeous retail space on a high-traffic street, even before they’ve developed a customer base. Or when a new company hires too many employees.
Passion should push you forward, should encourage new ways of thinking, and should pour out of you when you are selling or hiring or explaining what you do. But every time you spend money, you should make sure calmer, more rational business thinking is weighing in as well.
It is hard work to care a lot.
When you choose a passion-based career, you are deciding to care about what you do. This might sound like an obvious benefit. And I definitely believe it is better to care about your work than to not care. However, there is a kind of comfort that comes from doing a job you just don’t care that much about. You can leave the work at work, and relax in the evenings and on the weekends. If your job sucks, you can move on to a new one, or stay. Who cares?
Choosing a job or a business built around your passion means that you will, definitely, wake up at 3 in the morning filled with anxiety. It means that disappointments will grab you in the heart and rip it apart. Passion is hard. Remember: The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering.
You might be better off letting your passion be a hobby.
If you love your passion so much that compromise is unbearable, then you might be better off not making it a business. Leave it as a hobby. When you don’t need someone else to voluntarily pay money, then you don’t need to shape your passion around other people. You can keep it pure and unsullied.
(For me, it is the very act of matching a passion to others that has become my passion. I don’t think of it in terms of compromise anymore. I like taking an audience into account as I write and podcast. It gives me greater satisfaction to know I’m connecting with people, even if it means I shape what I write and say to better match the needs of others.)
Passion means uncertainty and volatility.
The central idea of the Passion Economy is that there are new opportunities available that are fundamentally different from the mass-production and scale of the twentieth century. That is, on balance, good news. It means there are many, many ways of succeeding. But it also means there are no obvious, clear steps. And the more original and passionate your ideas are, the more uncertainty you face.
By the 1940s, the U.S. economy had developed crystal-clear, rigid supply chains. Whatever business you were in, there was a well-established career path and well-established ways of creating, building, and developing companies. These ways changed, of course. But, for the most part, they changed fairly slowly, so that most people could adjust. Think of your grandparents’ jobs. They probably saw less change from their 20s to their 60s than you have seen in your industry in the past four years.
This new constant change is a major part of the new opportunity. You have every chance of finding a newly developing path that nobody else is seeing. But it also means that you don’t get to rest much. You need to stay on top of the trends in your industry and anticipate how they’ll shift. You also need to discover things for yourself. You can’t just rely on some wise mentor to give you the three keys to success. Because that wise old mentor is horribly out of touch and confused.
You probably don’t have a choice.
I’ll leave the worst news — or is it the best news? — for last. You probably don’t have a choice. We are in a transition from a scale economy to a passion economy. That means that —whatever you do or whatever you want to do — you are going to face these same challenges. There is no safe harbor. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, of course. You don’t have to start your own company. But, if you want to have some degree of financial comfort and stability, you will have to pay far more attention to what you, uniquely, have to offer and who, in the world, wants that thing enough to pay you for it.
In my mind, at least, the Passion Economy is not an option on a long list of possibilities. It simply is the way the world works now and the sooner you jump on board, the better off you’ll be.