#16 Passion Might Be The Answer: How Survivorship Confuses Us

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So maybe I get out of bed each morning to pursue my Passion. That can be the anchor at the center of my “I”. 

Steve Jobs agrees. Here’s a quote of his I shared last time.

“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you're not passionate enough from the start, you'll never stick it out.” 

Here’s another passion quote from another well-known business tycoon -Sir Richard Branson.

“There is no greater thing you can do with your life and your work than follow your passions.”

Jobs, Branson, these guys are studs. I pretty much have to go with their opinions.  Unless maybe…maybe there’s someone out there of equal credibility who isn’t so sure about passion.


Dilbert to the rescue


Dilbert’s not alone on the “passion ain’t it” train. His creator, Scott Adams, is a devout non-passion guy, and here’s a slideshow of his on the topic. If you don’t feel like looking at all 35 slides here’s number 15.


These are all passion-filled people. And they all believed they were going to be the next American Idol.

So would the right advice to all of them be “Never give up. Keep following your passion. Someday each and everyone of you will be famous singers?"

Not hardly. Not if you believe in statistics.

99.99999% of these passionate souls must end up singing as a hobby, in the shower, alone.

And Adams has more to say on the topic in his book titled How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. There he explains how big winners like Jobs and Branson can confuse us. These folks, and others like them, shoot for the stars. And a very, very, very, very small number of them win big. And these few winners get interviewed a lot. They preach about the critical need for passion. And we believe them.

On the flip side, we never hear from the passionate risk takers that don't hit it big. They're the overwhelming majority, but they don't get interviewed. They go back to work selling cars or whatever. So we're probably missing out on quotes like "Passion is bullshit" or "Passion bankrupted me and the friends and family that invested in me."

Think survivorship bias...

survivorship bias - the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions…

Hmmm, false conclusions. Adams "passion is bullshit" theory is starting to grow on me. I think I need to dig a little deeper. 

It's time to take a more research-oriented perspective. I want to take a look at a couple of my favorite books - Built to Last and Good to Great by Jim Collins et al. They studied the characteristics of successful companies and reported on them masterfully. But, now that Adams has me thinking about survivorship bias, isn't that just half the story? What about companies that did the same stuff the winners did but got their asses kicked. Without thoroughly examining lots of these losers I can't know for sure that the characteristics they called out in the books CAUSED the successes. 

I specifically point to Collins work because he believes in passion. On page 96 of Good to Great he says “The good-to-great companies focused on those activities that ignited their passion. The idea here is not to stimulate passion but to discover what makes you passionate.”

I think a lot of people take a statement like this and think there’s some magic out there. That there's some pre-ordained path that they must "discover" to find true success. Trolling the internet I found some amazing advice for finding my passion. One guy said to just lay down and refuse to get up until my passion comes to me. I get to pee and eat but that’s it. Just lay and wait. And, by the way, it costs money to learn from this genius.

So this kind of crap is what scares me about passion-hunting. It feels like helplessness or magic or dumb luck.  

However, Collins does leave a bread crumb later in the book on page 109 where he says

“The good-to-great companies did not say, “Okay, folks let’s get passionate about what we do.” Sensibly, they went the other way entirely: We should only do those things that we can get Passionate about.”  

Notice the verb “can get” in that last sentence. This sounds a lot more like my real life experience. Where I do some work and over time I start to buy in. I don’t start with some magical mystical search through the cosmos for my purpose or passion. It’s more of a logical realization that I like the stuff I'm doing and I can get passionate about it.

Scott Adams explains this better than I can…

"It’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion. The ones that didn’t work out - and that would be most of them - slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded…But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success..." 

Now that makes a whole lot more sense to me. Passion as a by-product of success.

I did tech start ups and we were fortunate to do a couple IPO’s. So I get the Steve jobs “dent the universe” kind of talk. I’ve seen that kind of energy up close and personal. But I just don’t think of it as stemming from passion. To me it just felt like ideas and hard work and tons of luck. We pursued hunches, and some of them worked out. So we chased them harder. And so I guess we developed a passion. But it didn’t start there - at least for me it didn’t. 

And I think my experience just might be the norm. I know lots of people that own great small businesses. And guess what? I never hear the word passion cross their lips. They make great products for their customers. They provide valuable jobs for their employees. They're proud of what they've built. But they didn’t start out drooling with passion and talking about denting the universe. They just put their head down and got to work building their cardboard box empire or whatever their business does.

I think Mike Rowe of the TV show Dirty Jobs has seen the same thing. He spends his life with real people in real jobs - not glamorous technology gurus. People that literally spend their days covered in shit or biting the nuts off of sheep. What does he think of passion?  Here's a quote of his...

"I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

Now if you're keeping score at home we have 2 billionaires voting for Passion - Jobs and Branson. And 3 idiots voting against - me, a cartoonist, and a guy who bites the nuts off of sheep. 

So it's time to bring out our big gun. Our anti-Passion billionaire, Mark Cuban. Owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star of Shark Tank. He’s the captain of our “Passion ain’t it” team and he says… 

“Follow your passion is easily the worst advice you could ever give or get."

Game. Set. Match. My research is complete.

Passion is not what gets me out of bed in the morning. Again, your map could be different. It might strike a perfect chord for you.  Awesome! Put it in your map and live it every day. As for me. I’m going to keep looking. And I’m going to follow this quote from Scott Adams to pick my next target…

"Passion can also be a simple marker for talent. We humans tend to enjoy doing things we are good at…"


That makes good down to earth sense. Talent has to be the answer. It must be the missing piece that sits at the dead center of my “I” in the dead center of my “SELF”. 

Until next time…

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