I’ve been waiting for someone in the tech/startup world to write something like this for a very long time, and finally, one of the 37Signals guys has said it.

“Startup mythology demands that to create something great, you need superhuman sacrifices. You need to work for no pay, you need to put in 120 hours/week, you need to preferably sleep under the desk and live off pizza as a sole form of nutrient. As a result, you need to abandon your family and risk life without insurance.”

From It doesn’t have to be all or nothing with a startup

Before I get into my big, tangential gripe (something which I have no doubt many people will disagree with) let me grease the wheels a little bit by throwing out a similar example (something which, based on many conversations I’ve had, people are more likely to agree with).

You know those obnoxious job descriptions that use words like “guru” and “rockstar” to describe who their looking for? (If any recruiters are reading this, I’m looking at you.) Do they turn your stomach when you read them? Why? Is it because calling yourself a “ninja” sets up an unrealistic expectation of what you can or will do for your employer? Does “rocking out” belittle the fact that what you are doing is actually serious and sometimes difficult work? Do these words make your job sound so deceptively fun, that you wonder whether this employer even realizes that they’re still going to have to monetarily compensate you for your efforts?

In the same way that job descriptions using words like “guru” or “rockstar” turn most peoples’ stomachs, pleas from startups looking for “passionate” people really turn mine. While I’m sure the people who write these descriptions have the best intentions in mind – they want to weed out people who do their jobs without any sense of joy or accomplishment – to me it’s a dog whistle, where “passionate” means “young person who will work 80 hours a week for practically nothing.”

Passion as Exclusion

This is the kind of cultural mythos that David from 37Signals is talking about. It subtly excludes people who are middle-aged, have small children, are considering having children, or just have a healthy desire to live a meaningful life outside of their job. On a larger scale, it feeds into the idea that these people have no place in the startup world. It’s the kind of attitude that makes people who only want to work 40 hours a week (nevermind that that’s all they’re getting paid for) look like slackers.

So why is it not enough to be “interested” in your work? What happens if you are “passionate” about something outside of your job, like playing in a band, traveling to exotic places, or being a good parent? Does that mean that you are in the wrong industry? And who is this person giving you a 30-minute interview to say?

Before you start feeling sorry for me…

Now, because I can sense some super-passionate overly-zealous person out there starting to feel sorry for me, some context. In my field, it’s my job to find what’s most interesting about my clients and their companies – a problem they’re trying to solve, an opportunity that’s available, or just some compelling customer behavior that they need to support or discover – and use that to inform the design of their website, product or service. While I’d be lying if I said that I was “passionate” about every single niche that my clients have come from (they are so diverse, I fear I would have run out of passion by now anyway) I can say that as a freelancer I never take a project that I can’t find the challenge in. In other words, I don’t need to be passionate, my projects need to be interesting. (And no, a sexy brand or a cool vertical alone do not make for an interesting project.)

I also recognize that there are things in my life I’m passionate about, but that I would never want to do for a living. In fact, I tried that once before, in my former life as a classical musician. As a young adult I assumed that the thing in my life that I enjoyed doing the most was the thing that I needed to build my career around. Granted, I made my share of mistakes in that endeavor, but by 22 years old I was burnt out and desperately searching for something to do next.

These days, my music career is a distant memory. I love to cook, but I would never want to open a restaurant. I love animals but I would never want to open a pet salon. I’m passionate about having a clean, organized, comfortable, healthy home, but I don’t want to be a housewife. In case you haven’t heard, the word is out – even if you follow your passion and turn it into your work, it is still going to feel like work.

Now for Some Unsolicited Advice

So here’s my advice for young people who are looking for work. Yes, it’s good to be eager. Hell, it’s good to be passionate if that’s what you really feel you are. But working hours that you’re not being compensated for, working for less money than you are worth or can make a reasonable living on, doing the job of more than one person, and working to and beyond the point of exhaustion are not. Be passionate, but don’t be desperate. Even passionate people can burn out. You may not realize this right now, when there is so much importance on getting your career started, but eventually you are going to find yourself desperately clinging to the things outside of your job that make you feel like a happy, well-rounded person, whether that job started out as a passion or not.

And for startups who are looking to hire. If you want to employ people who enjoy their jobs, make sure that your company culture is healthy, friendly, creative, and supportive of your employees lives both inside and outside of the office. Don’t just hire young people who are passionate and naive, then use that as an excuse to work them to death. (I should probably add that it’s not just startups that are the problem, it’s agencies too. The only difference is that big agencies generally don’t go so far as to sugar coat their 80-hour-a-week culture under the guise of “passion,” they just pay their employees well enough, or do a good enough job of cultivating a super-competitive environment, that employees feel like they can’t complain.)

In other words, I agree with David, but I want to take it a step further: it shouldn’t be this way.

Follow Up

Although I wrote this a while ago as a reaction to a post by 37 Signals, now that I’m getting around to posting it I see they’ve got an even more recent one taking up the passion argument as well: Forget passion, focus on process

Also, in digging around for that NYTimes article again I stumbled on this.
Just, wow: Monetize Your Passion