Prepare For Opportunity - My Take On "Follow Your Passion"

Follow your passion. 

Is this a piece of advice that will lead to a fulfilling life? Or, is it a reckless use of your time, energy and resources?

I’ve been presented with the opportunity to address a room full of high school seniors interested in entrepreneurship.  I’ll have a 45-minute block, and the choice to head in any direction I’d like with the discussion.  As I brainstorm the valuable wisdom I intend to impart, I find myself continuously circling back to the passion question.

In his time, Steve Jobs would routinely argue that the only way to be successful is to follow your passion.  His attitude was that the trials and tribulations that come with being an entrepreneur are only tolerable if you truly love what you do.  Steve hit this topic repeatedly during his commencement address to the Stanford University Class of 2005.  In it, he explained:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.

On the flip side of the coin, you have Cal Newport’s take on what he refers to as the passion hypothesis.  According to Cal, “the more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.”

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport explains that the appropriate course of action is to become a craftsman.  More specifically, you should focus on developing a specific skill or trade that is both rare and valuable.  Once you’ve done so, he argues, you’ll find it easier to achieve autonomy, create a financially viable career, and find a sense of purpose in your work. 

So, Who’s Right?

Like most, I am conflicted as to the answer to this question.  I can appreciate both sides of the argument.  I’ve managed to blur the lines between the two in my life as an entrepreneur. 

I could argue that I’ve turned my passion for sports into a career that focuses heavily on engaging with athletes ranging from the amateur to professional levels.  On the other hand my extensive education in business, along with three years of cubicle-based employment in “the real world”, has led me to fine-tune my business administration acumen.  This undeniably equates to developing a skill the way that Newport proposes.

If you ask me, the appropriate approach is not so black and white that you can only embrace one of these two mentalities.  My advice for this classroom full of young minds will be to prepare as if following your passion is not an option…and then pounce when the opportunity to do so presents itself. 

My Dad Was Right

Back in the spring of 1999 my dad carted me all over New England looking at colleges and universities.  Like many of my classmates, I’d picked up a copy of The Princeton Review and allowed their ranking system to dictate the direction I’d head with my list of targeted schools.  All I wanted at the time was to be able to tell my peers that I was attending a highly ranked academic institution. 

Liberal arts? Business school? Maybe a degree in communications? Didn’t matter to me…I just wanted the ranking. 

Thankfully, this is where my dad stepped in.  He reviewed my list and agreed to bring me to look at any campus I’d like, under one stipulation: every school is fair game, as long as you agree to visit Babson College and Bentley University. 

Babson and Bentley were two of the best known business schools in our area, and he was insistent that he would attend one of these two programs if given the chance to do it all again.  I distinctly remember pulling on to the Babson campus as he told me: “You have no idea what you want to do with your life, so the least I can do is make sure that you walk away from college with a degree that will make you instantly employable. Take this school seriously as an option.”

I ultimately chose to attend Babson College, and walked away with a working knowledge of marketing, financial & managerial accounting and business strategy.  I also discovered the importance of networking, and created an inner circle of ambitious young business professionals, including a gentleman named Eric Cressey.

From the fall of 1999, until the summer of 2007, I gathered useful skills, accumulated hours working as a marketing manager at a publicly traded company, and made practical career and employment decisions that would put me in the position to “take the jump” when a unique opportunity to follow my passion presented itself.  Cressey Sports Performance officially opened for business on July 13th of 2007.

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The Takeaway

Chasing your dream someday will be considerably less risky if you focus on accumulating functional skills in the here and now.  The optimist in me says that if you do so, the opportunity to follow your passion will eventually present itself, and you’ll be prepared to capture it.

If you’re currently a personal trainer with the dream of opening your own gym, don’t quit your job to launch a business where you’ll “learn accounting by doing”.  Take a night class on the subject and fine-tune your skills BEFORE taking the risk and dumping your savings into your passion.

If you’re training soccer moms at the local Planet Fitness but aspire to work primarily with professional athletes, simply announcing your desire to do so isn’t going to cut it.  Step far outside of your comfort zone and master physiology so that you can differentiate yourself from the other thousand strength coaches with the same dream.  Make calculated decisions that will all but ensure a high return on your investment. 

Gyms fail every day of the week, and it isn’t for lack of passion.  Gyms fail because the owners decided to attack the process without the right set of tools in the shed.