If 2018 was anything, it was the year that influencers enjoyed bashing passion (hammertime!), everyone had their say about it. If you enter the phrase ‘Passion’ in the popular channel Medium you’ll find top results such as: ‘The dangerous myths of passion‘, ‘Find your passion is awful advice‘, and ‘Don’t waste your time with passion‘. It is a response to the large wave of books, videos, and personal leadership programs advocating people to follow their passion.
Certainly, there is a truth in their argument. Jacob Morgan explains it reasonably well in his Ted talk; he tries to offset against the notion that passion is 1) an external thing you need to chase, 2) a fixed thing and you only need to find out what it is, and 3) we don’t know our passion before we choose determine the direction we give to ourselves (e.g. study or skills we develop). These false notions of passion might lead you astray in making life changing choices. Instead Morgan argues, passion is a thing you develop, over time, by engaging, learning, and caring about a subject/person/problem.
I really enjoyed Aytekin Tank’s view on passion in an entrepreneurial setting. He argues; don’t be passionate about your product, but about a customer problem. It sounds easy and obvious, and yes you must have heard it a 1000 times, but there is so much more to it. It is at the very core of your organization’s existence and so many entrepreneurs get this ‘simple’ thing wrong. It is one of the mistakes I also made (and still make) as an Entrepreneur. It is very easy to become passionate about a technology, methodology, approach, or a product and look for problems that fit this scope. You learned or created something and want to apply it wherever you go, and this often shapes the foundation of your entrepreneurial quest.
However, the reality of a startup is that, as you learn about your customers and their problems, you pivot and adapt in order to solve the problem. This often requires you to sacrifice the initial idea/product that you started out with. But sacrificing is not as easy as it sounds; it may mean abandoning the very thing you’ve studied or pursued for years. Letting go of the idea can be confronting at best and unacceptable for others. This leaves you with two choices; abandon the customer problem and look for a new one within your (product/technology/process) scope or hold on to the problem and find new ways to solve it. This is a fundamental founder problem: Are you passionate about a problem or about a solution?
We ourselves initially started with the idea that we wanted to help retailers by applying a certain technology (whether it was machine learning, advanced algorithms, or data quality). But that’s like saying we’re going to look for problems to fix with a hammer. You are passionate about the hammer, but tell yourself you’re doing it out of passion for the customer. Instead you need to find a problem, a real problem, one that is worth solving. As you think, brainstorm, interview, prototype, and learn about the problem, you become attached to the problem. It is no longer to apply a tool/technology/product, it is about solving that one problem. This is where Passion for the problem is born.
Boyan Slat is passionate about solving the problem of plastic waste in the ocean, not his Cleanup System. Jermain van der Graaf’s Rebottled helps people with a distance to the job market while also working to reduce glass waste, the product (selling glass cups) is just a method. Ikify is dedicated to helping mothers explore their inner powers, it is not about the solution it is about the problem.
And even though I’ve learned this lesson before, you have to stay alert to not fall in the same pitfall again: it somehow requires constant re-learning. During our recent investor pitch we had a clearly formulated problem (difficulty of determining the right assortment), acknowledged by many retailers (50+ interviews). And yet in our initial product design it was so simple to fall back on the technology/methodology stack we are acquainted/passionate with. We should be aware and stay wary of this pitfall, and remain focused on the problem not the solution.
A good friend of mine struggles with the same problem, he is very passionate about a problem (really exemplary and inspiring when you talk to him), but because he is very capable in certain skills/technology determining his very identity. He struggles with choosing Passion for the problem over Passion for the solution. Being open and passionate about the real problem becomes increasingly complex as you become an expert/specialized. And I believe it is this conflict between passion for problem and solution is something many of us struggle with.
Bashing passion is as easy as writing empty ‘follow your passion’ books. I very much hope that in 2019 we will focus more about the friction between doing what you like and what a customer needs brings. What are your thoughts? Have you struggled between problems and solutions?