Leonard A. Schlesinger is the president of Babson College. Charles F. Kiefer is president of Innovation Associates. Paul B. Brown is a long-time contributor to the New York Times. They are the coauthors of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future (HBR Press 2012). Learn more at juststartthebook.com.
“If you’re really passionate about what you do, but it’s not going to make you a lot of money, should you still do it?”
What a great question! It seems like just about everyone who has ever addressed a graduating class of high school or college seniors has said “Do what you love, the money will follow.”
Inspiring. But it is true? Couldn’t you do what you truly care about and very well go broke, as the question above (recently sent from one of our readers) implies?
Based on the research we did for our book, we’re convinced that when you’re heading into the unknown, desire is all-important. You simply want to be doing something that you love, or something that is logically going to lead to something you love, in order to do your best work. That desire will make you more creative and more resourceful, and will help you get further faster.
And, it will help you persist. When you’re trying something that’s never been attempted before — beginning an unusual project at work, or trying to get a new business off the ground — you’re going to face a lot of obstacles. You don’t want to be giving up the first time you encounter one.
But, let’s be real. None of this guarantees wealth, or even financial success.
A friend of ours was hanging out at a bar with a few fellow professional musicians after a recording session, talking admiringly about another musician they all know. One of them commented on how fortunate it was for this musician that his music was commercial. In those four words, you will find an enormous truth. We all have our music and there is no guarantee that anyone will buy it. Absolutely none. These are two entirely separate things.
So this reader question attacks us straight on and says, in essence, “I have the desire, but I am pretty certain it’s not going to lead anywhere that’s monetarily profitable. Now what? Should I still go ahead?”
Of course you should.
Now let’s qualify the answer a bit:
If you can’t afford to do the thing you’re passionate about — for example, if you do it, you won’t be able to feed your family, or it would keep you from graduating college (which is something you think is more important than whatever you’re passionate about) — then no, you’d better not bet your economic life on it. A basic principle concerning how you should deal with an unknown future is that every small smart step you take should leave you alive to take the next step. So, make sure you attend to your lower order Maslow needs of food and shelter and the like.
But even this doesn’t mean you can’t work on your passion a little — even if it’s just for 15 minutes a day.
And you should!
Research (such as The Power of Small Wins that ran in Harvard Business Review May, 2011) shows that people who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled.
We’re in favor of people being happy. And we’re also in favor of provoking people into pursuing happiness. The nice thing about this reader’s question is that it might get people who have — by any objective standard — more than enough money to reconsider whether they want to continue to do things that are not making them happy, just because it’ll make them more money. More often than not, these people say, “Once I get enough money, I’ll do what I really want to do. I won’t worry about the money.” But somehow, they never get to that point. Time is finite. The question might be enough to get you to reconsider how you’re spending it.
And of course, the assumption embedded in the question could be wrong. You might, indeed, end up making money if you engage in your passion, even though you currently think you won’t. Remember, the future is unknown. Who knows what people will buy, or what you might invent after your very next act. At any moment in time, you are only one thought away from an insight — an insight that can change everything.
As we said in our previous post, when you are facing the unknown, they only way to know anything for sure is to act. When you are dealing with uncertainty — and whether you are going to make any money from your passion at this point is definitely an uncertainty — you act. You don’t think about what might happen, or try to predict the outcome, or plan for every contingency. You take a small step toward making it a reality, and you see what happens.
Who knows? Even the smallest step can change everything.
So take those small steps. You might discover that your passion does, in fact, make you money. After all, who knew you could make huge amounts of money figuring out a way to connect all your friends (Facebook) or make a better map (pick your favorite GPS tool).
Even if you don’t, you want to spend part of your day doing at least one thing that’s making you happy. Otherwise, something is terribly wrong.