Investors, mentors, entrepreneurs, and hiring managers have a habit of claiming divine abilities to judge other people's emotions while admitting difficulty judging that same person's actual skill and ability. Skills at execution are much easier to judge and certainly result from any emotions that drive people to execute. Yet we ignore the tangible and hang our hat on a word that describes an emotion - passion.
Passion is an emotion that is defined by 8+ disconnected definitions in the modern dictionary that seem to be growing. Definitions that range from the death of Christ to uncontrollable outbursts to sex. Add to the complexity of the word the fact that different cultures, genders, and personality types comprehend and display emotions in different ways.
Yes people need to be emotionally invested in their work, but the term 'passion' is a lazy crutch. Investors claim a lack of passion when they themselves can't put their finger on what they don't understand about the business. Mentors and managers claim a lack of passion when the social norms entrepreneurs display to them don't convey deep love for your work. Peer-entrepreneurs claim a lack of passion when they don't know how else to describe the missing enthusiasm, curiosity, or drive.
What is really being evaluated when people claim to judge passion?
- Body language and presence - This is both the most universal and the most unique. This is one you can master quickly. Watch examples of success and practice their body language behaviors. How do they move, what about eye contact, do they touch the people they're meeting, where do they place their arms, hands, and legs. You think I'm kidding but simple things like a chill in the room can cause you to look closed off and "not passionate".
- Enthusiasm - If you're a low-energy person you'll have to practice this one a lot. Too often your high-energy peers see low-energy and immediately think you lack passion. Enthusiasm is one of those things that is tough to fake. If you're truly getting up every morning and grinding on the startup you've been passionately grinding on for the last ten years... but you can't figure out how to display enthusiasm for the startup, investors will see a red flag. Alternatively - if you just came up with an idea and have spent no time working out the possibility of building a company around it....but you can figure out how to display enthusiasm, you'll dupe a few investors initially.
- Curiosity - It's difficult to imagine a person pursuing entrepreneurship without curiosity bursting from the seams. Yet displaying curiosity and having curiosity are different things. Similarly entrepreneurs are sometimes more curious about the innovation than they are about the value they're creating for real people. Often times these "passionate" entrepreneurs toil away for decades without much traction to show. You have to be curious about creating real value in the world through the combination of your innovation and business efforts. Being able to display this level of curiosity isn't easy to fake and gets to the heart of your business.
- Drive - The drive to make things happen. Oftentimes drive can be easy to fake... "we're doing x, y, z and then a, b, c" - but drive in combination with curiosity and enthusiasm is something a little different. The goal is not to see the drive itself but what is creating the drive, is there an underlying experience, mission, or value that is at the root of all this effort? This can be the hardest one of all the attributes to display because sometimes what is driving you as an individual or entrepreneur is hard to put your own finger on. For the investor, this is also the most difficult to discern. If you can't genuinely convey what's driving you, you'll need to do some soul searching and practicing or else you'll hear a lot of responses that you lack 'passion'.
The truth is, one thing can lead to these clues far more than any presence on stage or around the meeting room table - execution. If you're being looked down upon because some investor or advisor doesn't think you are passionate enough about your project, having piles and piles of paying customers to point to is a start in the right direction.
Although we're terrible at explaining them, all of these norms and conventions exist because we're human and we like to build mental models to rely on. If you take the time to understand them, it is much easier to understand what is expected, how to engage, and what signals you need to be able to demonstrate. The next time you're told to show more passion or you were passed because of a lack of passion - know it's a crutch and they likely can't pinpoint anything more useful.