A tip for would-be startup employees: Find your passion

By Jason Freedman , written on August 28, 2013

From The News Desk


I just met with a friend who just moved to the Bay Area. He made that ever-so common request of wanting help in finding a job, working with awesome people in disruptive technologies, blah, blah, blah…

This guy knew the right things to say, was clearly smart and networking in an honest attempt to find a great fit. But I was having a hard time, because I wanted to help but couldn’t get around my gut feeling that he sounded uninteresting.

He was doing that thing that lots of people do when they talk abstractly about what they want. He was saying things like, “I really want to get into digital media, and specifically, data-based analytics.”

And all I’m thinking is what the hell does that mean? I mean, really, what the hell is he talking about? The funniest part is that he used the word “specifically,” as if one abstraction layered on top of another was the route to greater clarity. I’m thinking about what it would be like if I introduced him to someone at another startup. Would he hire a guy who talks like this? I mean, maybe my friend could thrive at a large company where this sort of business-speak is part of the workplace culture. But the startups I know hate this.

Finally, in the midst of going back and forth, I said, “Dude, you just don’t sound passionate about anything, and no one around here will hire anyone who isn’t passionate.”

That definitely got his attention.

Was he interested in digital media? Yeah, probably. Interested in data? Yeah, I guess so. Was he passionate about it? That’s probably a stretch. At a large company, it’s probably okay to be interested in something, really good at it, and cash your paycheck.  But startups don’t work that way.

At my company, my cofounders and I have risked everything to succeed. Two years ago we had no money, massive credit card debt, and no one believed in us. Today we have investors, users, and we’re growing. As we ramp up, we need to bring on people to our team to help push us forward. We’re looking for people who are just as passionate as we are.

I think that’s what every founder wants. Every founder I know has taken huge risks and made big sacrifices to get their startup off the ground. They all want people who are as passionate as they are.

So my friend, though intelligent and well educated, simply wasn’t passionate enough to  land an initial get-to-know-you interview. Our conversation ended awkwardly because my observation struck him as true and he didn't know what to do about it. I felt bad, because I felt like I was leaving him hanging without a rope.

After reflection,  I’ve decided to go to go back to him with a few pieces of advice. Although you can’t teach passion you can help someone search for it.

So here are six tips for finding your passion:

1. Hang out with passionate people. Passion is by its very nature contagious, and when you’re with passionate, you get inspired. You start to see what it’s like to truly be engaged in something. In a way, this is what accelerators like Y-Combinator provide.  It’s a community of unbelievably passionate people, and it is unbelievably motivating to be around them.

2. Stop generalizing. It’s hard to be passionate about something in the abstract. Passionate people are obsessed with details. So must you be.

3. Be a maker. It’s hard to be passionate about something when all you’re doing is critically analyzing it. All of my friends that went into consulting – virtually all of them – have complained about how, in the end, they were frustrated that their end product was a PowerPoint deck. Several have now gone into entrepreneurship and amazed themselves with how passionate they are about building something real.

Making stuff is liberating. It taps at your creative potential.

4. Experiment with different niches. One of the common things I hear, whenever I encourage someone to take a really deep dive into something, is they don’t want to close off their options. But doing a deep dive doesn’t preclude you from doing other deep dives in other areas. Think of your job search as an in-depth survey course in startups. Each week you spend time diving into one type of startup so that you emerge from that week passionate or not passionate.

5. Be patient with your time. It’s hard to find something deeply engaging, so you have to give yourself the opportunity to search for it. If you are in a rush to find a job, you’ll be less likely to find it – and probably less likely to find one that’s right for you.

6. Be willing to learn more. What I found with my friend is that he had learned a particular set of skills in business school and needed a place to apply those specific skills. For him, it was as if the learning process had ended. But every passionate person I know is constantly learning, so if you want to find your passion you should assume that it will involve learning new things.

And finally, don’t settle. Just flat out don’t settle.

That is, in the end, what my friend seemed to be doing. He was looking for a job and would likely settle for anything that wasn’t miserable. In the end, if he had a Bay Area startup that paid him a salary and had reasonable people around him, he would be content.

He needs to aspire for more, in fact, demand much more. It’s okay if you’re not feeling the passion right now. Go out and find it.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]