Your Passion is Stupid

“No, not unpopular, they just have a more selective appeal.” – This is Spinal Tap

DSC00962

Okay, there’s a time when your passion of throwing big rocks in the river should be followed.  That’s whenever you’re at the river.

Pop Wilder was a banker.  Oh, I know what you’re thinking, John Wilder is the banker’s son, summers in Maine, winters in Switzerland.  No.  Summers in the forest cutting firewood in Colorado, winters in Colorado on snowmobiles fifty miles into the back country.  Okay, winters were better than Switzerland, at least since the CIA stole the secret of the Swiss “hot chocolate” technology and weaponized it in Swiss Miss® cocoa packets.

On occasion, especially after a few bourbon and waters, Pop Wilder would get a bit melancholy.  “John Wilder, you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, but don’t be a banker.”  Although by any measure, Pop was successful.  And he was passionate about his work.  He left every morning before the Sun came up to open the bank.  He got home two hours after the bank had closed.  He unlocked the place and locked it back up.  He never took more than 10 vacation days in any year, and I never saw the man take one day off due to being sick.  (An aside:  I’m stunned that’s the first time I came to that realization – I haven’t taken a sick day off since 2000.  Wonder where that stubbornness comes from?)

Pop Wilder, you see, wasn’t the “snort cocaine off a stripper’s butt” type banker, but rather the “small town banker that drives a car to work that’s eight years old.”  I think he might have not abused his power enough . . . I’m not sure.  What’s the use of having power, if you don’t abuse it?

What always bothered Pop Wilder the most was when he had to explain to a person who wanted to borrow money that he wouldn’t lend it to them – he didn’t think the loan was based on sound collateral, or the borrower’s income wasn’t enough to cover their living expenses plus their debt.  He was proud at the end of his career that he’d never had to foreclose on a single home.  To him, the act of lending money was a moral event – you didn’t burden a borrower with more debt than they could pay.

That didn’t make the borrowers who he turned down happy.  They were (understandably) upset that Pop had crushed their dreams, but in the process, he’d done them the biggest favor of their lives.  In a weird way, his “no” had saved their financial future from the siren song (read The Odyssey or watch Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou (LINK) if you missed that reference) of their dreams and passions . . .

One of my favorite things to see is the garden variety successful person who’s being interviewed.  Let’s pretend it’s me, since I’m rich and semi-famous:

Oprah:  “What’s your secret, John Wilder?  How did you get to the pinnacle of success and yet maintain those superb washboard abs?”  (Oprah bites her lip.  Perhaps I should have not worn such a tight shirt.)

John Wilder:  “I followed my passion, Oprah.  My passion is all consuming.”

Fade to Clip of Me Synchronized Snowboarding Off the Top of Mount Everest Accompanied by an Actual Yeti.

You’ve heard that, too:  successful people telling you to follow your passion.  I probably heard that two dozen times between high school and college.  Follow your passion.  Invariably it was by short salesmen who were in suits while I was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt.  And I was (really) thinking about going skiing or checking out the girl of the week.  My passion did not and does not involve being an old man in a suit.

Hopefully you haven’t done followed your passion, because your passion is stupid, unless you are the ghost of Steve Jobs.  Steve, you can follow your passion.  Only you.  Namaste.

I’m sorry to tell everyone else a simple fact: your passion is stupid.  And my passion?  My passion is stupid, too.  Maybe even really stupid.

The Mrs. and I have been married roughly since the invention of dirt.  We’ve thought about opening our own businesses several times, and even produced a business plan or two.  All of them have been based on things we like, things we are passionate about.  We’d discuss, fine tune, get the spreadsheets ready, and then decide if we were passionate about it.  As you’ve hopefully read in the fine pages of this blog before – the best deals are the ones you don’t do.  We’ve passed on most of the deals.

But one in particular we got all of our ducks in a huddle, got a small business loan application together, and went off to the local bank to ask for a small business loan with our spreadsheets and our plan and our proposals and estimates and projections.  I didn’t go to the meeting – I was at work.  But The Mrs. walked in, and the banker didn’t blink an eye before he got to his response.  “No.  Not now.  Not ever.  Please pretend we’ve never met.”

The Mrs. was upset when she got home.  I shrugged, and we decided to carry on without opening that business.  About a month or two later we read in the local newspaper about how someone had opened a business that was nearly exactly what we’d planned to open up.  They did a detailed story on the place, nearly a full page, with color pictures.  Amazing amounts of free advertising.

That business closed up before six months had passed.  The banker who said “No” had saved us $55,000 of loaned money.

Oh.  I get what Pop was doing.  Rather than helping people live their passion, he was saving them from their passions.

The people who say that you should follow your passion are generally not passionate about the thing that they’ve done, whether it be roasting coffee beans or creating BookFace®.  No.  They’re passionate about success.  They’re passionate about their business because it brought them success.  It’s like pretending you like Tootsie Rolls Lollipops® for the outer candy shell.  You don’t.  You like the center.

And that’s the secret of success.

I am passionate about playing the guitar.  I love to do it.  Unfortunately, my guitar is as good as Johnny Depp’s personal hygiene or money management skills.  So, of course, I devoted my entire career to playing bad guitar?  NO.  I suck at guitar.  I will never be good at it.  But . . . I do math and science-y things really well.  I have the intuition on that stuff that Eddie Van Halen has for meth guitar.  Maybe not that good, but I found that the combination of the math stuff and the science stuff and the planning stuff and the intuitive grasp of physical systems and processes (with a dash of normal human empathy) pops me into the top 0.1% (hint, that’s the only place the money is).  That combination allows me to win where other people would lose (in certain situations).  And in one instance the application of those skills allowed an IPO to go through that netted a company a billion or so dollars.  Yay me!

And winning in situations like that makes me passionate about combining those skills.  So, am I following my passion?  Well, I’m following my success, which is a lot like following passion.  Except following my passion would make me bankrupt because my guitar is only slightly better than my singing.

So it comes down to . . . what are you good at?  I mean, really good at?  Not what you’re passionate about.  Let’s face it:  you can be passionate about drinking bourbon, WWE, MMA or anthropology, but none of those things are helpful unless you’re part of the 0.1% AND you can figure out how to win/make money with that skill combination.

Can you make money with it?  Most things you’re good at don’t pay any (really any) money at all.  You’re in the top 0.001% of the world at trimming nosehair?  No.  Next.  Your skill should translate into actual income.  What does the best person in the world at what you’re good at make?  Can you live on 1/10 of that?

Okay.  You’re good at it.  It’s a rare skill.  You can make money at it.  Good money.  Now your challenge?  Get better at it.

Most people take a decade or more of really hard work, over 10,000 hours, to become world class at a skill.  Generally, the longer they execute the skill and the more they work at it, the better they become, peaking in their forties or fifties.  These aren’t physical skills – those peak about 24, and take a big nosedive once you pass 30 or so, and if your skill is there, strike quickly – age will pull you away faster than you anticipate.  What I’m talking about are mental skills that are honed by experience.

Passion?  No banker will lend on that.  They’ll lend on experience, skill, and excellence.  Be passionate about those and the world will allow you to snowmobile in Colorado in winter . . .

People will call you lucky.  Just smile and ignore the sweat.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

2 thoughts on “Your Passion is Stupid”

  1. I always enjoy your posts, great combinations of intelligence and humor(reminds me of myself!). Anyway…keep on writing and I’ll definitely keep reading. I’m going to share this post with my teenage children. Required reading kiddos!

Comments are closed.