Passion and Purpose

There’s a tremendous amount of pressure in Boulder to be an entrepreneur. It seems like every “what do you do” conversation I’ve heard involves a startup or wishes it did.

And there’s something magical in that, isn’t there? A culture where everyone wants to do something they’re passionate about and few if any want to work for “the man” and climb the corporate ladder?

During this last Ignite Boulder you could count on one hand the number of speeches that didn’t at least mention following your instinct, taking the path less traveled, or flat out quitting your job to follow your dreams.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with all this talk of passion and entrepreneurship, but one thing that worries me is the conversations I’ve had with people who seem to want to be an entrepreneur because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do.

And I believe that’s just as wrong as people going to school and climbing the corporate ladder because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do.

I had a great conversation with a young gentleman who started a business consulting firm. He pointed out something very important: passion alone can’t accomplish much – it requires the context of purpose to be of any real value. His argument was simple and revolved around a story.

Once there was a woman (let’s call her Jan) who worked as a mortgage broker. She was good at it and was paid well enough, but she had no desire to keep going. She thought she needed to leave her job, find her passion, and start a business.

She went to a seminar on finding your passion and by the end of the weekend was feeling flustered and irritated because she couldn’t figure out what to do, what kind of company to start. She spoke with the instructor and relayed her frustration, to which he replied: “Jan, take a step back.”

“I’m not here to take a step back,” she said, “I’m here to start moving forward.”

“I understand that, Jan, but just try for a moment.” Jan paused for a moment and considered. “OK,” she said.

The instructor continued. “Think about what you’ve discovered so far this weekend. What drives you? What is it that you know with certainty is your passion?”

“I love helping people. I love working with people and I love helping them.” Jan felt a splinter of irritation at what now felt like a rote answer. She’d said it so many times this weekend that it was beginning to feel mechanical.

The instructor seemed to sense her annoyance and sympathized. He’d had a similar struggle when he first started down this path.

“Jan, have you ever considered that what you do every day helps people?”

“That’s not really true, I just help the bank make money,” she responded dejectedly, “I don’t help the people that matter. In fact half the time the people that really need the loan don’t even get it.”

“Why not?” Asked the instructor.

“Because they don’t have good enough credit, or their income is just a little too low… It could be any number of reasons.”

“And if they got the loan, would their lives be better?” he asked.

“Well,” Jan began. “I mean, maybe. There’s really no way to know…” she trailed off.

“Have you ever considered that them getting the loan might actually be a bad thing? That they might not be able to afford it? And that they would live life under constant pressure to make the mortgage payment on time, or at all?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Jan, “I’m not an idiot. But I still hate not being able to help them!”

“But that’s what I’m saying.” The instructor was choosing his words carefully now. “Shift your perspective slightly and I would argue that you ARE helping them. You’re just not helping them in the way they think they need.”

“I’ve heard this all before. It doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“That’s okay,” said the instructor. “It doesn’t need to feel good to deliver bad news. But if you know in your heart that you’re helping these people, you can at least say you’re working in line with your passion.”

“Well, even if I agreed, what good does that do me? It doesn’t help me figure out what business I should start.” Jan was beginning to feel like she was toeing the line between frustrated and outright angry.

“Jan,” the instructor responded calmly. “Start thinking of your passion as a purpose. Stop thinking about how you LIKE to help people and start thinking about how you DO help people. If you do I think you’ll realize that you already ARE living your passion every day at your job, and you may not need to start your own company at all.”

The teacher finished quietly. “You don’t always need to change your life to have a different one – sometimes you just need to change yourself.”

It’s relatively easy to find the things we’re passionate about in life. What’s usually harder is turning those passions into a purpose and bringing that purpose into your everyday life.

We can say “That’s what my life will be like someday once I’ve started my own company.” But I think we should always be willing to try to apply that passion and purpose to our lives as they are.

Sure there’s a lot of pressure to do something new and amazing, but I think we should all remember that we are beautiful, unique creatures. Just living our lives with passion and purpose is the differentiator that means every day will always be more new and amazing than the last, whether those days are spent working for “the man”, a startup, or as an entrepreneur.

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