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Do You Need Passion to Succeed as an Entrepreneur? Pam Slim’s Advice for Starting Your Own Business


Start-Up Passion

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I argue that “follow your passion” is bad advice.

But what about for entrepreneurs?

I’m asked this question often. It seems logical that the only way to power through the difficulties of starting a new business is to be driven by passion, so people want to know if this path is an exception to my post-passion philosophy.

This is an important question and I want to provide an evidence-based answer. With this in mind, I turned to Pamela Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, and one of the country’s top thinkers on making the jump to entrepreneurship. I met Pam last summer and was impressed by the sophistication of her thinking on this topic, so I asked if I could interview her and then share her thoughts with you. She graciously agreed.

Here are the highlights from our conversation (my conclusion follows)…

“In terms of starting a business, the first step for many people — particularly those in traditional corporate environments — is to tune into what topics interest you, where your natural strengths are, what lights you up.”

“For many people, however, there is no one thing — we are wired to have many different interests and passions.”

“You have to choose something of interest that is also going to have an economic engine behind it.”

“Take one idea. Find a simple business model. Then test it using the fewest resources possible (time, energy, money), but in a way that gives you a good sense of whether the idea is viable. This is especially important if you are testing an idea while still holding a traditional job.”

“If you put a number of different models through this test, you can determine if you enjoy doing it, and if the market really finds it to be valuable. You need both.”

“I suggest having a clear decision criteria.”

“A word of warning about this process: something I’ve seen people struggle with is this idea that there’s a perfect job or business out there for you. Then, when you start something, and it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be, you worry, when you should instead be committing to building the skills necessary.”

“If you are always attempting to understanding yourself better, identifying environments that support your best work, then commit yourself to do your best work, it will lead to more happiness.”

My Conclusion

When it comes to entrepreneurship, Pam knows her stuff, so I was happy to see that our thinking aligns in so many places. The idea that most caught my attention is the difference between passion and a true calling.

Pam notes that it’s important to feel strongly about a business model/idea/lifestyle before pursuing it. In fact, she frequently uses the word “passion” to describe this feeling.

But she also makes it clear that there’s a difference between this strong feeling and a sense that a particular path is the one and only path for you. It’s this latter thinking that so often leads to worry and disappointment when reality proves less than euphoric. She notes that you might have many different interests, and this fine — choose one. And even if you love the idea you’re pursuing with a singular intensity, you still need to commit to clear and objective testing of the market. Without an “economic engine”, all the passion in the world cannot guarantee you long term reward and engagement.

12 thoughts on “Do You Need Passion to Succeed as an Entrepreneur? Pam Slim’s Advice for Starting Your Own Business”

  1. I take issue with your premise

    It seems logical that the only way to power through the difficulties of starting a new business is to be driven by passion

    It’s not the only way. You do need motivation, but passion isn’t the only motivation you can have to get thru those difficulties. Some are motivated by a desire to pay the bills, or a desire to not work for anyone else, or even by a personality that makes them unemployable to others.

    I’ve long believed that the whole passion thing is a straw man. And sure successful people are passionate about what they do – that it’s survior bias to say that’s a requirement. Plenty of people are passionate about a business and go bankrupt – often because of their passion. It blinds them to the realities of running a company.

    And when people talk about passion in the context of entrepreneurs they often mean passion for the product or service the company sells. But when you’re building a real company what you do every day is so diverged from your product.

    I don’t know how many restaurants have been started by people with a passion (and even skill) for cooking and have bitten the dust for lack of marketing, cost control, good hiring and management etc. Those are the things a restaurant needs as well as good food.

    So I’m with you that follow your passion is bad advice. In entrepreneurship like in any field, you have to enjoy some aspect of it enough to put up with the stuff you don’t like otherwise you’ll never be any good. Perhaps what’s different about entrepreneurship is that it’s harder to get by with being mediocre and still get paid for it.

  2. An interesting, if exotic, confirmation of the Study Hacks approach comes from yoga. The yoga branches are always listed in the same order – Hatha, Bhakti, Karma, Gyana, Raja – corresponding to the body, feelings, will, mind, and soul. Many natural processes follow this order: the development of a child in six-year stages from birth to maturity; starting a business; developing a relationship; etc.

    Recent research showed that people are happiest while they are concentrated in the moment. ( Thus, predicting happiness based on “passion” would seem to be an inaccurate approach.

    Even very noxious tasks become interesting and fulfilling when we do them with full focus and immersion. A friend of mine worked in a grocery and HATED to stock shelves. When he began to pay careful attention to lining up the cans, not letting distractions erode his focus, he started to enjoy it, until it became the highlight of his day, a time out to do something really enjoyable and restorative.

    Seems closely connected with the SH method – just find something that will take you where you want to go (academic, business, and/or life success) and dive in where you can FOCUS.

  3. THANK YOU JOHN!!! Finally someone with real experience who can weigh in on this topic. Good stuff…

    I’ll just add that I’ve found that head-down, pig-headed determination & willpower will trump ‘passion’ every time.

    And I’ve also found myself more passionate about HOW things are done, instead of WHAT (execution trumps pretty much everything else)

    But what do I know, these are just my opinions.


  4. I have written 22 articles on the importance of being the right career in four magazines apart from the Times of India the links of which are on my blog(website above).

    I heard your lecture and question answers. You have a point when you say that skill sets are important and the route through passion is tough(Even through skill set, it can be tough if you happen to be in a totally unrelated field). Steve jobs is only one kind of example . However, there are many people who have the career capital you have spoken about but are yet unhappy because the interest is not there:-

    I read in Marcus Buckingham’s book about a person who was selected in the college and state team for swimming on the basis of natural ability alone but he refused as he hated swimming and wanted to be a rock star. One of India’s foremost and well established actors gave it up for singing as he hated acting. The authors of “Your soul at work” where the authors who are career consultants to Fortune 500 company consultants that very often they have come across people at very high levels who despite their success are not happy and satisfied with what they are doing. Many people at are those who were well established in their work but yet shifted. Many well established people with artistic mentality hate their management jobs though they may have acquired proficiency in it by doing it over a long time.

    In my view, both talents and skills are equally important but there has to be a new system of education that addresses both.

  5. Ignoring Each Individual’s Perception

    Cal, I find your evolving “algorithm” towards a link between success and passion to be extremely informative and helpful for future generations. However, I take great issue with your advice that “follow your passion” is bad or dangerous. You ignore that people have different backgrounds and intricacies (which lead them to want to pursue one thing over another). Some people grew up with deficiencies or events that affect them significantly in adulthood on a deeply psychological level. In such cases, have you considered that perhaps their false notions of “passion” are actually ways to cope with their psychologies, that their “passion” gives their lives meaning and can actually reap financial benefit?

    Human beings also have an amazing ability to generate synthetic happiness. Just because someone quits her job and pursues a dream without sufficient skill does not mean she won’t have incentive to labor even more intensely to develop those skills. Will the person die? Doubtful. Will the person realize how hard it is to actually follow her dream and have no option but to work harder, all the while developing character? Yes. Will that hard work lead to developed skills? Yes. In the mind of the person, she has succeeded, and probably won’t have any regret because she was true to herself. In the minds of certain other folks, for the time being she has “failed,” in mundane societal terms. But they don’t realize it just might take her a little longer to finally contribute to society, all the while developing herself as a person.

    By no means do I think that any of your research is wrong, as the facts strike me as actually quite useful; I think future parents and mentors should teach your findings to a younger generation. I just think you’re ignoring the psychological ramifications throughout your research. You may be pushing it dangerously close when dictating that “follow your dreams” is bad advice–when perhaps in some (but not all) people’s realities/perception of their world, following their heart is the only thing that will give their lives meaning. Following your passion is bad advice–but only when it implies that the person blindly expects automatic success to follow without hard work.

    By the way, personally I’d love to see a post about how well your research meshes with recent findings from positive psychology. (May give your research more credence from a psychological perspective).

  6. I think I missed something. In chapter five of Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you give a vastly different impression of Pamela Slim.

    There, her work “is an example of the courage culture,” which “[pushes] the following idea: The biggest obstacle between you and work you love is a lack of courage—the courage required to step away from ‘other people’s definition of success’ and follow your dream.”

    You add that this idea “crumbles when viewed from the perspective of career capital theory”. [this is in the ‘From Courage to Food Stamps’ section of Chapter 5]

    My impression from your earlier work was that Slim is at best deluded and at worst a snake oil salesman. Now she’s “one of the country’s top thinkers on making the jump to entrepreneurship”? What gives? It’s like the author of your book and the author of this blog post are completely different people.

    And I’m much more convinced by the author of your book. That Cal Newport included numerous examples and statistics (with footnotes!) as he laid out a compelling case. And now this new Cal Newport considers the general pronouncements of one advice author an “evidence-based answer”?

    I don’t buy it. My speculation is that Slim was offended by her portrayal in your book and this post might be an attempt at revisionist history. Whether that’s true or not, I think this is a weak post, and you can certainly do better.

  7. I think I missed something. In chapter five of Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you give a vastly different impression of Pamela Slim. –

    After writing the book, I met Pamela. I had several long conversations about her consulting work. It turns out that she has a very sophisticated approach to the topic that she has been honing over years and years. This is why I asked her to do this interview — I wanted those ideas to be made public.

  8. I believe that many of us do not have either dreams of passions. What we do have however is a nightmare. And that becomes the driver of our life. All our life we try and ensure that our nightmare should’nt come true. Therefore either way, dream or nightmare, we need to work our asses off 😉

  9. Hi Cal,

    Just finished your book So Good They Can’t Ignore You and it was So Good I Couldn’t Put it Down 🙂

    This is the book I wish I had 15 years ago when I graduated and my head was filled with passionate passion advice.

    Wanted to reach out to you with a question, but found no easy way to reach you so I’m going to try here:

    Your book has a lot of advice for people just starting out in their careers. But what about middle-aged folk who are already halfway through? How would somebody like that develop career capital etc. if they haven’t already done so?

    Would love to hear if you had any thoughts on this.

  10. We cannot choose our parents. It is not our fault if we born in a poor family but to die poor is an another story. So long as we live, we have the chance to turn the corner, to change for a better life. So we have to act now and find the ways to live in a better life…


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