Vision+passion: Source of entrepreneurial success, or result of it?

Entrepreneurs are all about the vision and the passion.

Peter Thiel recently described  for a SXSW audience Mark Zuckerberg's famous decision to decline Yahoo's $1B buyout offer, explaining (according to Inc.com) "that the best entrepreneurs, like Zuckerberg, have a definitive view about the future and plan for it; they don't willy-nilly chase luck-using statistics, probability, and iterative processes-to stumble upon something, anything that flies."

"All of us," Thiel said, "have to work toward a definite future...that can motivate and inspire people to change the world."

Most VCs I know share Thiel's perspective, are thesis-driven, and are keenly interested in an entrepreneur's vision of what the world will look like.  Confidently articulating a clear vision is not the only criteria VCs seek, but it's usually an important one.

A second defining quality of entrepreneurs is passion; as much as "follow your passion" has become a cliché, it's also how most aspiring entrepreneurs see themselves, and it's a quality many VCs seek in the entrepreneurs they fund.  I've written frequently about this topic as well (here, here, here).

It's not just entrepreneurs; the most successful medical researchers, for example, are often described as those who've pursued their vision and their passion, and who wouldn't rest until they answered a particular burning question.

The problem with this conceptualization is perhaps best articulated by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame (who knew?).  In a recent blog post, Adams challenged the "follow your passion" trope, writing:

"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. As a result, it looks as if the projects I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, the passion evolved at the same rate as the success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success." (emphasis added)

Similarly, as much as we admire clarity of entrepreneurial vision, it seems important to recognize that in most cases, such a vision didn't emerge fully-formed one day from the entrepreneur's head, but rather (like Facebook), evolved over a period of time, following a period of exploration and poking around.

While it's true that the most successful entrepreneurs I know, like the most successful medical researchers I know, passionately pursue a vision, aspiring entrepreneurs and medical researchers would do well to recognize that both passion and vision evolve over time.

Demanding or expecting such passion and vision from the outset may be destructive, pinned on a deceptive or misleading premise.  The impassioned pursuit of a definitive vision may better describe what it feels like once an entrepreneur hits her stride, rather than reflect the far messier and less certain process of how she got going in the first place.

 

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