Why ‘Follow Your Passion’ is Bad Business Advice

During Oprah‘s final show a few weeks ago she masterfully distilled and delivered 25 years of hard-earned wisdom in a few power-packed segments. I attended a viewing party (at the Four Seasons where she lodges when she travels to Atlanta) to hear what she had to say. As she talked throughout the hour, I blinked my eyes repeatedly to keep from becoming a hot pink puddle of tears in my cute little summer dress. I was misty-eyed for a few reasons–mostly because I was so inspired. She shared many thoughts that were absolutely profound. As an entrepreneur I believe she made one distinction in particular that needs to be clearly understood. While discussing the fact that everyone has a purpose she said, “You have to make a living, I understand that.” She went on to say, “Everybody has a calling. Mine aligned with my profession, my job. Not everybody gets paid for it, but everybody is called,” she said. (Watch the segment and hear for yourself.)

Did y’all hear that? I looked around the room.

Oprah had just offered a thought that challenges one of the most popular bits of entrepreneurial advice. How many times have you heard, “If you follow your passion in business the money will follow?” It has been repeated so often that it is now thought to be a business truism; but I’m here to tell you that it is often misleading and in some cases flat out wrong.

The advice is well-intended but the potential problem with using only personal passion as your compass for business is that your passions are about you and your business needs to be about your customers. Your business needs to be about satisfying a group of people who will consistently pay for the product or service you are offering.

If what you love is also something that customers will love, want, demand, and need–which happened to be the case for Oprah–then, great you’re in business. If not, then you’ll have to tend to your passion in the evenings and on the weekends, or in another way.

Here’s the rub: Yes, you will need passion in business because passion gives you energy and it takes a lot of energy to build a business. But your passion doesn’t have to be the substance of your business; it doesn’t have to be the product or service you sell. It may be. I hope it is; but don’t kid yourself if it’s not.

If not the makings of your business then your passion will be what drives you in business. It’s your ‘why.’ Why did you start a business? Why is failure not an option? Why will you work unrelentingly until you achieve what you set out to do? Your passion will push you to get up one more time than you get knocked down.

My mother, who will be 72 years old in December, pursued a career that she wasn’t head over heels about; but passion for her ‘why’ drove her to success.

She grew up on a farm in Mississippi. Her family picked cotton to survive. As she grew older, she vowed that she would not live her adult years picking cotton on a farm. She was also not interested in being limited to traditional career options that girls at that time were pressured into. She had a shot at a couple of non-traditional careers, such as modeling because she was tall and thin – and playing basketball overseas. She loved the idea of both and she was really good at basketball and passionate about it too.

But within herself, my mother had to be absolutely sure beyond doubt that she would never have to return to the farm, except for a visit, and that she could create a comfortable middle class lifestyle. So, when making her career choice she held fast to her ‘why.’ She desired to improve herself, never return to live on the farm, get a top notch education, travel the world and be financially independent. She also wanted to raise a well-educated daughter who would have the luxury of pursuing her own top passions because of the sacrifices of her mother. Her passion for these objectives gave her the energy to make it through the challenges that came with her chosen career path as a young, black woman entering the military in 1961.

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