You have to be passionate | #5

No doubt that being passionate about your domain or idea is helpful. Yet, the role of passion feels exaggerated and oversimplified.


You’ve often heard it said: Entrepreneurs have to be passionate about their ideas or domains.

Only if you’re passionate you’ll stay up until 3 am to fix that bug in the code, jump on the next sales call after 9 rejections in a row and don’t give up when the going gets tough.

Your founding journey should be at the intersection of a right to win and a want to win. While the former describes how this idea fits your skills/knowledge (giving you the right to win), the latter is often equated with being passionate. about the idea or the space you’re in.

I’ve observed numerous founder journeys and noticed a tendency to overemphasize passion. I’ve tried to summarise my thoughts by breaking it down into two challenges.

A. A (too) narrow perspective

When you ask why does passion matter it’s often about the topic of perseverance. “You don’t give up when you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing” No doubt that being passionate about your idea or the space you’re in helps you persevere.

However, I think that the often-discussed role of passion does not do justice to the complexity of the matter. I think what people often want to discuss or (self-)reflect on is “what is it that makes me absolutely determined” – what’s my personal source of determination. Being absolutely determined is what makes you want to win against all odds.

"The most underrated quality is being really determined. This is more important than being smart, having a network or a great idea. So much about being a successful entrepreneur is just not giving up."

Sam Altman

I don’t think there is an easy recipe for finding out where your determination comes from. It’s very individual and multi-faceted.

Charlie Songhurst, the former head of strategy at Microsoft, and one of the most prolific angel investors (portfolio of 500+ companies) shares an interesting view on the motivation of founders. He breaks it down into two stack ranks.

  • Stack rank of your virtues: Working with people you like | Working on amazing problems (“intellectually interesting”) | Having impact

  • Stack rank of your vices: Power | Money | Fame

I think it’s a helpful mental model for dealing with the complex reality. The stack ranking (i.e. sorting elements based on their relative importance) approach acknowledges the co-existence of different drivers, yet, implies that no two drivers are equally important.

Charlie Songhurst reasons that there is no absolute good answer. It’s about good-fit answers. He, for instance, tends to avoid people interested in fame, yet admits that for doing something in showbiz it would presumably be the number one criterion. In his view, founders interested in power tend to be better at execution while founders interested in money tend to be more capital-efficient.

B. You might miss out on opportunities

Again, let’s take a passion-centric stance. Most founders in the early days of ideation would understandably think about the following sequence: 1. I’ll identify my greatest interests (e.g. food, impact on the planet), 2. find problems/ideas related to these interests (e.g. lack of sustainable food options), 3. pursue the respective entrepreneurial opportunities (e.g. alternative protein-based meat substitutes).

I’m sure that some great companies were built that way.

However, I’ve observed that an ideation approach which is too much centred around what is perceived as an area of passion might make founders focus too easily on certain ideas and rule out others too quickly. The mantra “following your passion” is at best myopic, at worst misleading.

I would assume that the areas you are passionate about will change much more in comparison to your underlying source of determination. The average time from founding a company to exiting it (assuming that’s the goal) will be 10-12 years. No doubt, personal interests will change a lot over a decade. We underestimate how much we change. The things you were passionate about 10 years ago are probably very different from what you’re passionate about today.

So much of what we want is shaped by the environment we’re in. Humans inherit convictions mimetically from each other — we learn what to value by imitating our peers. We might even swap goals we actually care about for goals we focus on because we subconsciously compete with the people who have the highest influence on us.

Furthermore, (almost) everyone who is successful says that they love what they do. I’m not sure if most of the founders who built massive companies in regulatory tech, accounting software or payment processes founded companies in these spaces because they were passionate about them. I would assume that most successful people love what they do because they’re successful – and the byproducts of the success such as impact, learnings, accomplishment or wealth. Cal Newport, the author of the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” makes an interesting point regarding a wrongly assumed causality between passion and success.

“I was noticing during my research for So Good They Can’t Ignore you that if you ask people who love what they do for a living and look at their actual stories, 9 times out of 10 they were not following a clear pre-existing passion. [..] When you ask someone casually who loves their work “What’s your advice?” They say “Follow your passion”. What they really mean: Follow the goal of ending up passionate about your work. Not about identifying in advance.”

Cal Newport, Author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You

What to make out of it

So far, I’ve pointed out two challenges regarding your want to win as an entrepreneur. I want to end with a few thoughts on what to make out of it.

  1. Reflect on your source of determination: Don’t ignore areas your passion areas but go further – what are your true drivers?

  2. Embrace Changing Interests: Accept that your passions may evolve over time.

  3. Leave your tunnel and explore: Don’t fall into a mimetic trap.

  4. Value mastery and success: Often, passion grows from excellence and achievement in your field.

A founder coach perspective: Interview with Julius

For this newsletter piece, I thought that there is a good reason to deviate from the usual “Founder Interview”. I invited Julius Bachmann to share his perspective on this topic. He can look back to his experience of having coached more than 150 founders and investors in Europe and the US.

As a former venture capitalist, founder and scale-up executive, Julius understands the different stakeholders and helps clients work through issues from all perspectives. He’s a prolific author & musician and lives with his wife and daughter in Berlin. I can highly recommend his blog “Chaos & Clarity

Julius is one of the leading founder coaches in Europe, working with entrepreneurs and investors on connecting the dots between personal, team and business challenges.

What makes founders do what they do? Are some reasons better than others?

I generally see extremely high ambition levels in founders. The most sustainable of them source their ambition from curiosity and the joy to build thriving businesses. This twist to their motivation also helps them take relationship challenges (like an argument with a co-founder, top executive or investor) less personally.

Unfortunately, many investors are looking for founders with a “chip on the shoulder”, those who will break through walls to prove themselves to the world. While these personality traits are super unhealthy when left unchecked and unexplored, it is the fuel of many entrepreneurs. Part of my mission to make entrepreneurship more human is to train investors and help them navigate founder personalities more effectively.

How can founders self-reflect on this in the best way? Is there an exercise / mental model / habit you can recommend?

The best way to reflect is to journal regularly and have regular offline time without work-related stimuli. Having a sparring partner, therapist or coach helps but there are many ways to build “facilitated reflection”: founder circles like EO or YPO are an effective alternative for many of my clients.

With my co-founder teams, I share questions and prompts to reflect together and discuss their thoughts. For teams, it helps to reflect on the same questions and then discuss answers together.

What’s one piece of advice you wish you had known earlier?

Having ambition is fine. Being extremely ambitious without being aware of where it comes from and what your triggers are WILL run you into burnout.

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