Being Passionate about What You Do: Requirement for Success or Complete Falsehood?

John Tabita

The concept behind getting rich is pretty straightforward:

  1. Acquire assets that generate income
  2. Have more assets than liabilities

Assets can be a business that generates revenue, real estate investments, stocks, or published works that you earn royalties from. Basically, anything that generates revenue without requiring you to work for it (i.e., trade time for dollars) is the road to becoming wealthy. Some of the wealthiest are the most average-looking people you’ll ever meet. They may be “rich on paper” (meaning, they have a high net worth because of the assets they own) but they don’t have much disposable income to live an extravagant lifestyle.

Current popular thinking about getting rich, however, goes something like this:

Make a business from your passion and the money will follow.

That certainly seems to have worked for J. K. Rowling, author of the immensely popular ‘Harry Potter’ series, who went from a destitute single mother on welfare to an estimated net worth of $1 billion. (Yes, you heard right—that’s billion, not million.) But does this prove that passion is a given, or even a requirement, to riches? Must passion precede riches? Even Forbes.com, who published the report, Europe’s Billionaire Women, marveled at Rowling’s rags-to-riches story, calling it “dramatic” and “almost as hard to believe as the fiction she spins.”

Does “Being Passionate about what You Do” Really Matter?

I have the sneaky suspicion that the passion-to-riches theory is one of the most misguided beliefs about getting rich (perpetuated by others, like me, who aren’t). I may be passionate about medieval basket weaving, but if there’s no market for it, I’ll most likely die passionate and penniless. In his ‘Rich Dad’ book series, author Robert Kiyosaki claims that the biggest obstacle to becoming rich is that it’s boring. It involves the world of income statements and balance sheets, and the things required to get rich are repetitious and not much fun.

My dad’s theory was that you shouldn’t like what you do too much; otherwise you’ll be willing to do it too cheaply—or even give it away. He believed that by not liking what you do so much, you’ll demand top dollar for it. In fact, he deliberately choose a line of work that he was good at and believed he could make money at, over one that he knew he’d really enjoy but which he doubted his ability to succeed.

For years, I thought he’d made the wrong choice, because I became indoctrinated in the “do what you love and the money will follow” philosophy. Now that I’m older, I can see how that’s not necessarily a given. I’m not saying that getting rich means doing something you hate, but I don’t believe that passionate is a necessarily a pre-requisite—and I don’t believe the money will automatically follow as a result.

In his book, Getting Started as a Freelance Writer, author Robert Bly says that you should “love what you do for a living,” but also advises: “Find the intersection of your passion and the needs of the market. What do you like that also interests other people? Therein lies your writing career.”

I believe the need for passion depends entirely on your personal values. For my dad, it didn’t matter whether or not he was passionate about his career, only that it would make money to provide for his family. For me, I can’t imagine doing something in life I’m not passionate about. But, as a career path, it also has to be something that will make me money, because I now have a family to support. (But I’m also open to finding some boring way to make money that will free me to pursue something I’m passionate about that won’t.)

The Real Truth about Passion

I’ve been writing about starting with why and making meaning, and I specifically remember both authors I quoted saying that these things must happen before you can make money. So am I contradicting myself? No, because passion is an inherently selfish thing. Let’s face it, Western culture has become more and more hedonistic, and most of us have been conditioned to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. So we bring that mindset into the workplace and assume that we must always be feeling a certain level of passion in what we’re doing. But if the ‘why’ of what we do doesn’t benefit others, then you’ll never make meaning for others, will you? Remember how I said that I loved everything about graphic design and web design? But I also said I loved helping my clients’ businesses become more successful. In other words, I’ll never be prosperous if it merely satisfies me personally (i.e., “I feel passionate”) but does nothing to satisfy the needs of the market (i.e., it makes meaning).

So it seems I’ve come full circle in my discussion. In order for the “passion-to-riches theory” to work, there must be a market for what I’m passionate about. But if I’m truly intent on making meaning, rather that just satisfying my passion, there will be times when my personal passion will have to take a back seat to, say … meeting a deadline … or working longer hours because the client asked for some last-minute changes. In other words, making meaning requires a commitment to something bigger than yourself and your desire to constantly feel the “buzz” of passion.

Passion is a wonderful thing. But because it’s also a self-centered thing, it’s easy to cross over that invisible line from passion to obsession. Although my dad was not particularly passionate about his line of work, he was passion about becoming successful and making money, which led to working long, hard hours to build his business. The price he paid was that he missed out on a lot while we were growing up—something he later regretted.

I’m all about being passionate about something in life, but don’t sacrifice your loved ones on the altar of your passion. Make sure you’re also passionate about the things in life that truly matter.

Additional Reading:
Passion: Your Key For Achieving Success
Passion for Work is a Requirement for Success
Follow Your Dreams and End Up Broke!
Stop Trying to Find Your Passion and Get to Work

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  • mary

    I think I side with your Dad. I’m a web developer, I’m good at it and make a good living. But I absolutely hate doing it on the side for freelance projects. I work hard at the office and I don’t want to do more of the same when I get home during my free time. That’s reserved for things I’m more passionate about that I can’t make any real money doing. :)

  • barb smith

    Great post John! It’s all about balance right?

    ~carpe diem~

  • masterartist

    I learn a lot from this. I am a web designer and I spend lots of time content managing and site building. I often sacrifice my time with my family though in the long run they miss spending time with me and thats time that I can never get back. Thank you for your blog. Very interesting.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.blogspot.com/ John Tabita

      I once heard someone say that if you are a resounding success in your career, but so neglected your family to accomplish it, that you are not a “success” at all. He defined success as being effective in all areas of life, not just one. While you’re content managing and site building, don’t forget that your family needs “managing and building” as well.

  • kaf

    You have to be passionate about what you do to be good at it.

    But you don’t have to be good at what you do to make money from it.

    Thats why so many wealthy people really don’t deserve it, while hard working intelligent people go without.

    What a dumbass society/economy we live in.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.blogspot.com/ John Tabita

      No one said life was fair. Each one of us is responsible for what we make of our life, regardless of who we think does or doesn’t get what they “deserve.”

  • Matt

    Fascinating read John. I think it certainly helps to have some degree of passion for what you do. In fact, many people would argue that “success” is simply doing what you love doing in life (assuming you’re earning enough to make ends meet). But if you want to generate a decent income then you have to balance your passion with other peoples’ needs, and what they are willing to pay for.

  • Some guy

    There is always the viewpoint that if what you’re doing feels more like fun than work, you’ll be happier to put in all those extra hours needed to make it a success.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.blogspot.com/ John Tabita

      While I’d rather be happier when putting in extra hours, the argument can be made that, if it’s so much fun, you’ll wind up putting in unnecessary extra hours. Just a thought…

  • Daquan Wright

    I’d take passion in most cases, because people are very often not good at jobs they hate. I had a job I hated and I wasn’t brilliant at it.

    The answer is “it depends.” It’s situational, but balance can be a good or a bad thing depending on how it’s used.

    You can use it to fuel your career and become more productive. You can also go overboard and let it leak into every facet of your personal life (in which balance is lost). But I think as long as you have something you like to do (even a hobby), you’ll be OK. Professional gamers have jobs (likely not something they dig) but they game for many hours throughout the week and get good at it. As long as you can survive, that matters more than anything. You will do what you like if even only on the side, because you will seek the pleasures of life.

    I like developing for the web, some of it excites me and some of it is quite tedious. The tedious portion of it keeps me at bay so I don’t kill myself over my love for the web. =P

  • barney

    Passion, in most all its forms, is vastly overrated. Competency, however, seems to get short shrift. I’d much rather be competent than passionate when it comes to producing an income … or even just living life. Passion has its place, but it can lead you down the garden path when you really wanted to traverse an avenue – the income avenue.
    I enjoy dealing with folk who are passionate about their work, but history has shown me that I’m much better off dealing with someone who is competent – I get more real value. Same thing applies to my personal efforts. Competency can be acquired in most any field of endeavor, but passion tends to blind one to flaws the competent person would observe and for which that person could compensate. Passion tends to sweep faults under the rug … competency makes ya pick up the rug to see why it’s lumpy, then clear out the detritus so the rug lies flat.
    All in all, were I still making a living in the work force, I’d be inclined to agree with your dad. Someone who dislikes what they do is likely to do their best to get the job done and over so that they can go home to their passion. If ethical, they’ll get the job done right, mostly ’cause they don’t wanna hafta redo it . But, even though I’m no longer in the workplace, I still have to pay to get things done … plumber, electrician, mechanic, et. al., so I look for competent, not passionate.
    Case in point, I once hired a guy to do some internal home redecoration – wallpaper, paneling, floor/carpet, cabinetry, and the like. What should have been a 3-4 week job turned into three (3) months because he was a perfectionist, extremely passionate about his work. Definitely one time that _mere_ competency would have far surpassed passion, both in time and monetary expenditure.
    So, in the long run, I’ll take competence and ability over passion and exuberance any day. I’ve hired both, and seen the results.

  • Chaz Scholton (iDude.net)

    What truly is success? The definition of it alone can become rather relative and subjective. Personally, I believe it all depends upon the goals which either an individual or group have set for themselves. At times, being successful means the accomplishment of a combination of goals.

    There are so many Cliches surrounding what success is, it’s not funny. Most of which amounting to narrow minded convergent thoughts trying to isolate and define it universally. This is a pit fall of convergent thinking.

    What is success for one person, may not be success to another.