The Science of Passion: Finding Lasting Motivation for Entrepreneurs

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, SCIENCE Issue, published JULY, 2015. A PDF version can be found here. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

Author: Hashim Bahbahani

Print Artwork: Rami Juma

5 min read.

Consider the following experiment in psychology: a group of randomly selected students are asked to try two cups of coffee from two different coffee stands set up purposely by the experimenters. The cup of coffee is identical at both stands. However, Stand A sells only coffee, while Stand B sells both coffee and sandwiches. Stand A clearly advertises itself as a “coffee specialist”, while Stand B identifies itself as a “coffee and sandwich shop”. After tasting a cup of coffee from each store (and nothing else), the students are asked to rate the overall quality and taste of the coffee.

 

From a strictly rational perspective, there should be no discrepancy between the ratings, as both beverages are in fact identical. However, the results show that the students clearly thought that the cup of coffee from Stand A, the coffee specialty seller, was substantially better than the coffee from Stand B.

 

This experiment is a variation on several tests ran by prominent University of Chicago behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach to prove a theory she calls “Goal Dilution”. In short, Goal Dilution theory states that people are more likely to perceive something that does one thing, and only that thing, as better than something that does that same thing plus something else. This has been tried and proven time and again by Fishbach and her team.

 

Although Goal Dilution theory has mostly been used to explain consumer behavior and irrationality, I think it has an equally important application on self-motivation, especially for entrepreneurs.

 

We’ll get to that in due course.

 

One of the most important steps that many founders are afraid to take towards startup success is dedicating themselves to their business on a full-time basis (the optimal term being “full-time”).

 

Founders believe that full-time dedication to their startups is a matter of time management. However, I consider it a matter of mental and psychological dedication. Let’s go back to Goal Dilution and think of how it would apply in terms of self reflection for a dedicated startup founder versus a part-time startup founder. For the “full-timer”, he or she will perceive himself/ herself as a startup specialist in their relative field. They consider themselves a cup of coffee from Stand A. The “part-timers” are unlikely to hold themselves in the same esteem.

 

The point being that full-time dedication has an intangible psychological effect on how confident a founder is in his/ her ability to be successful. This is not conjecture, but rather a factual statistical likelihood.

 

That is the first part of the motivation puzzle.

 

Now consider the following question: is passion predisposed within us?

 

It is certainly the assumption people make when they give the advice “follow your passion”. As a startup founder, this was the main advice I received from mentors; and most people interested in entrepreneurship will hear it as well.

 

It’s very bad advice.

 

Georgetown University computer science professor and best-selling author Cal Newport puts forward the idea that no person is born with predisposed passion, and that passion is in fact conceived through effort and focus.

 

My interpretation of Newport’s idea is that passion is not something to be followed, but rather created. That is a fundamental distinction.

 

According to Newport, studies show that passion is created by believing you are especially good at one specific thing. It is a two part equation. The first part is related to self-perception, which is where the previous discussion of Goal Dilution and dedication becomes relevant. The more dedicated you are to something, the more passionate about it you will become; not the other way around.

 

The second part is related to actively developing an extraordinary skill set through effort and devotion. That effort is rewarded with consistent improvement, which pushes a person away from mediocrity and closer to excellence. The closer a person is to excellence in a certain activity, the more passion they will feel for said activity. That passion is translated into motivation to dedicate even greater effort, which leads to further improvement, and so on. That is the flow of the “passion cycle”.

 

In practical terms, this means that a prospective startup founder is better advised to empower themselves through education and training with the tools necessary for them to explore a market opportunity they believe is feasible, scalable, and attainable.

 

I like to think of the passion cycle as a massive boulder that requires a lot of grit and push to get it rolling, but once it does so it gathers unstoppable momentum.

 

That is part B of the motivation puzzle.

 

Finally, consider the following behavioral experiment: Three groups of students are given the same challenging cognitive tasks to perform. The only variable between the groups is the level of reward promised for completing the tasks (Group A will be rewarded highly, Group B moderately, and Group C the least). The rational model of economics will have us predict that Group A will perform best, followed by Group B, then C. But the results show the exact opposite. The group with the highest reward expectation performed worst, and the group with the lowest reward expectation performed best.

 

This is a stripped-down summary of a series of experiments done by Duke and MIT professor of behavioral economics Dan Ariely form which he concludes the following:

 

For highly cognitive tasks, monetary reward often has no effect or an adverse effect on performance. But applying meaning to the same tasks had a very positive effect on performance.

 

That is the key word: meaning.

 

While monetary reward should be taken into deep consideration, it cannot be treated as a factor of motivation. This notion doesn’t stem from a utopian portrayal of what startups are meant to achieve. Rather, attaching some underlying meaning to your business activity is a strategic decision that will reflect positively on performance.

 

Meaning doesn’t have to come from a grand objective. It can be something simple, but ultimately impactful. A videogame startup can strive to “immerse users in a different reality”; a media platform might aim to “provide an outlet for people’s creativity”; an e-commerce website could plan to “connect people to the things they love”.

 

A sense of mission is the most valuable intrinsic motivator for a startup founder, and it trumps any extrinsic reward. Once again, this is not conjecture. It is a fact of behavioral science.

 

That is the third and final piece of the puzzle.

 

It is undeniable that true motivation stems directly from a passionate pursuit of a goal.  But we have contextualized passion as an elusive holy grail to be searched for and, ultimately, stumbled upon by a lucky few. In this article I tried to challenge that fundamental assertion. It is my conviction, based on factual findings in psychology and behavioral science, that passion is created methodically, no matter how oxymoronic that may seem. Passion is a result of dedication to systematically and purposefully developing an extraordinary skill set in pursuit of accomplishing a meaningful mission through a type of venture. Such is the science of passion: demanding, systematic, and unconcerned with chance.

 

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, SCIENCE Issue, published JULY, 2015. A PDF version can be found here. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

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