The advice that if you “do something you love you will never work a day in your life” is variously attributed to Confucius, Marc Anthony or Mark Twain. Regardless who lays claim to it originally, it is a common sentiment. In recent years though it has come under scrutiny as being an empty promise peddled by self-help gurus and motivational speakers. But the idea is real and familiar to many solo business owners, who take the plunge to follow their passions.
Of course there’s truth to the saying, and likewise its detractors have some valid points. So you’ve followed your heart in business. What are the pros and cons, and how can you exploit the positives and manage the negatives?
Passion is a superpower
Proteus is a mythical Greek sea god who can foresee the future and change form at will. He uses this superpower to adapt and thrive in changing circumstances. The work of solo business owners can be characterised as protean careers – those that are a reflection of the individual and their own self-fulfilment, rather than one defined by external measures such as income or promotion within an organisation. Douglas Hall and Dawn Chandler proposed a model of psychological success when a person experiences a sense of calling or a sense of purpose in their career.
The model is consistent with theories emerging from positive psychology concerned with eudaimonia, that link vitality with living a life of meaning and authenticity. Eudaimonic wellbeing transpires from living in alignment with one’s values, accepting responsibility for one’s actions and engaging in personal growth.
Living in alignment with one’s own intentions can give rise to the experience of flow – feeling total absorption and pleasure in a task. This phenomenon has been studied at length by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Czikszentmihalyi discusses the autotelic experience (from the Greek words auto, meaning self and telos, meaning goal), where people pursue intrinsically motivated activities that have an end in themselves rather than the expectation of some future benefit.
But what happens if you can’t control your superpower?
Czikszentmihalyi acknowledged that flow is not inherently good, and can in fact be addictive. According to Czikszentmihalyi, being absorbed in action at the expense of reflection and a bigger perspective is not advisable:
“Sooner or later, however, postponed alternatives may reappear again as intolerable doubts and regrets. Was it worth sacrificing my health for the promotion? What happened to those lovely children who have suddenly turned into sullen adolescents? Now that I have achieved power and financial security, what do I do with it? In other words, the goals that have sustained action over a period turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to the entirety of life.”
What happens when you experience setbacks?
Many solo business owners can relate to feeling up against it after the initial buzz of a new venture has subsided and the reality of daily tasks and pressures takes over.
Stanford researchers Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton conducted a series of studies testing how people’s ability to sustain engagement with a task is influenced by their belief about the nature of passions and interests. Dweck is well known for her theory about the power of a growth mindset to improve perseverance and performance.
O’Keefe, Dweck and Walton’s hypothesis was similar with regard to beliefs about interests. According to the researchers, the promise “do something you love and you will never work a day in your life” can set people up for failure. It implies that interests are fixed and fully formed and that all one need do is to identify their passion and the rest will come easily.
The results of the studies supported their theory. Those who believed passions were fixed were less likely to anticipate difficulties when pursuing passions. When challenges arose, they were more likely to take this as a sign that they hadn’t really found their passion after all. By contrast, those who believed passions were something that you actively develop, were more likely to maintain interest when the going got tough.
What happens when you experience fatigue?
Aside from belief about the nature of passions, what makes some people able to stick through the hard times, and others collapse?
An influential psychological theory that has recently been questioned is that of ego-depletion. Ego-depletion is the idea that willpower is finite and the more we use it the less we have to draw from. But do our reserves of willpower really work like a petrol tank, or is this a case of basing a model on a poor analogy?
Veronika Job, Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton tested the theory and found that one’s ability to sustain willpower is influenced by one’s beliefs about it. If you think willpower is a limited resource you will find it difficult to maintain self-control after a demanding task. Conversely, if you do not subscribe to the idea that willpower is finite, you are more likely to show stronger determination. Sound familiar?
What if, instead of like a petrol tank, you considered willpower to be like a muscle – the more you use it the stronger it becomes? Krishna Savani and Veronika Job tested the theory of ego-depletion on an Indian sample, and found that participants’ performance improved after demanding tasks. The researchers attributed this to a cultural belief that exerting willpower was energizing.
So where does that leave us? There is mounting evidence that belief is powerful, and knowing oneself can help us to the live a life we believe in. This includes not only understanding our strengths, but also our blind spots and the beliefs that lock us into a certain reality.
Flexibility, reflection and insight are superpowers
We can feel energized by living a life in alignment with our own values and intentions and what better way to do that than to follow our passions in business?
However, if we become too absorbed in our passions, we are unable to reflect and use one of Proteus’ most important superpowers – his ability to foresee the future and adapt accordingly.
To avoid becoming a victim to our passions and losing perspective, creating time to reevaluate values and goals is important.
Understanding ourselves as constantly developing and evolving can buoy us when the going gets tough.
Creating boundaries between work, leisure, relationships and rest is also valuable, as this is the best way to ensure we see the bigger perspective.
Finally, we can build our resilience by feeling grateful that our paths as solo business owners allow us to ride the waves – sometimes feeling the pain of being dumped in the surf, but also the elation of riding the waves all the way into the shore.
This post was written by Trisnasari Fraser from I am Ready Psychology. Trisna is commencing a group for solo business owners balancing parenthood. For more information visit: https://www.