Here’s Why “Do What You Love” is Bad Startup Advice

“Do what you love” advice--given as a blanket statement--is completely wrong, and I have a very relevant perspective.

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I was recently asked to speak at an entrepreneurship-themed conference hosted by a university MBA program. There was an interesting divide amongst the speakers on the whole “Do what you love!” advice that’s often passed around in the small business community.

My take is this: “Do what you love” advice–given as a blanket statement–is completely wrong, and I have a very relevant perspective.

Once Something Becomes Work, It’s Work

It doesn’t matter what you are doing, once you are forced to do it it just becomes another job. People are terrible at predicting what will make them happy. Do you think pursuing your dream of hanging out at the gym all day playing sports will make you happy?

Wait, sorry, that’s what I did and it bombed (more on that below). In general, people have a hard time predicting what will make them happy because of what’s called impact bias — the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of future feelings.

Hobbies Don’t Make Good Businesses

When you poll a randomly sampled group of people on “what they love” most will come back with answers like: “Going to the park, playing sports, hanging out with friends, having sex, and sunsets.”

Now take a look at the list of Fortune 500 companies and let’s cross-reference their core businesses to the average person’s “what I love” list. Sure, you might love spending time on Facebook, but unless you’re a developer it’s probably not a feasible business decision.

So what’s the magic formula then, Matt? Now this is easy.

Instead Do What You’re Good At

This will afford you the most freedom and financial stability to do whatever you want. I have a unique perspective because I took the statement “Do what you love” at 100% face value. In my second year of college, after hearing this advice, I sat back and asked myself, “What do I love doing that makes me happiest, that I could turn into a career?” Got it! Open a boxing gym. I love sports and fitness and being social. It’s perfect! Eureka! A couple years later Final Round Boxing was open.

So did my hedonistic Richter scale go off the charts and did I find myself live happily ever after? Not quite. What happened? I started to hate boxing. When you become a slave to something, it doesn’t matter what it is. You’ll end up resenting and hating it most of the time.

Consider these Hygiene and Motivational Factors

Here’s a thought exercise:

Subject A is working in a field he/she doesn’t really care for — selling women’s health products. Subject B is doing something he/she “loves,” running her own yoga studio. Subject A makes a great salary (including sales bonuses), has little supervision, and flexible work hours. Subject B has to teach yoga all day, every day, and to make ends meet has to work 10-14 hour days 7 days a week. Which would you rather be?

This all comes back to what’s known as the “two factor theory,” a theory published by Fredrick Hersberg in the Harvard Business Review. In the article Hersberg reasons that there are certain factors that impact workplace satisfaction — known as “hygiene factors.” This includes pay, hours, job security, company polices, and supervision. If those aren’t done right then you’ll be unhappy (I think everyone can agree on that).

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