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To succeed, be practical about your passion

"I'm getting a degree in music with a minor in business," a student asked me recently. "Do you think my music degree is going to hurt me when I interview for a job in business?"

Many of us have faced similar situations. We are born with talents, predilections to do something great. And yet in many cases those talents will not provide a sufficient income for the lifestyle we would like to have. Many people would like to play golf every day, but there is only one Tiger Woods. So we are faced with the question: "Do I work at my passion, or do I work at something practical, something to pay the bills?"

Another way to ask the question is this: "Do I keep working at my 8-5 job, or do I quit and start the business I have been dreaming about?" Let's talk about how to be practical about your passion and give your new business the best chance possible to succeed.

Identify your value proposition. Every business exists because it can provide a product or service for its customers. The advantage can be in the product, the price or the service, but the business must be better at it than any other company. It's not enough to be passionate about a business, it must provide real value or it cannot succeed.

Assemble a team. Studies show that 80 percent of new businesses fail in the first five years. However, of the 20 percent that survive, 80 percent start with a management team rather than a sole proprietorship. A passion for your business is no substitute for business knowledge and experience. If you lack those, form a team with others who can help in these areas.

Look at the worst-case scenario. Ask yourself, "What is the worst that can happen?" Sometimes quantifying the monster is the best way to slay it. Understand what would happen if you lost everything. Take steps to minimize your potential losses. Have a backup plan, a fallback position. Once you decide that you can accept the worst, you can go forward with confidence, knowing that you understand the downside while you are searching for the upside.

Manage expectations. This is the key to keeping yourself sane. Set reasonable goals for yourself. If you have a spouse, share your goals and assess your opportunities for success or failure. Reassess your goals regularly and be brutally honest. Don't let your passion blind you to reality. Don't continually wait for a better tomorrow and don't continue in a lost cause.

Let's return to the student's question: "Will my music degree hurt me when I interview for a job in business?" I asked him why he got a degree in music. He answered, "Because I love it and I'm very good at it." And I could see from his face that he meant it.

I thought for a second and then said, "You are passionate about your music, aren't you?" He nodded. "Then use that passion to your advantage. Tell the interviewer something like this: I got a degree in music because I'm passionate about it. I also proved to myself and to you that I can finish a large task. Now I've decided to turn my passion in a different direction. I want to work for your company and become passionate about my job here.'"

If I was the interviewer and I heard that from a candidate, I'd hire him on the spot.

Why? Because here is someone with passion and the vision to focus it on something practical — a rare combination indeed. Whether as an employee or as the owner of a company, that is one of the secrets of success.


Craig Earnshaw is associated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. He can be reached via e-mail at cfe@byu.edu.