People love to read about the habits, routines, and life journeys of the super successful, and the web is full of articles promising to teach you the tricks that transformed everyday people into moguls. It’s human nature to look for a well beaten path to follow, but if you read these articles you’ll soon spot the trouble — the people you admire took wildly different paths to success.
Jeff Bezos had a whole career in finance pre-Amazon, Bill Gates began making money building software in high school, while Sara Blakely flunked her LSAT before drifting into a career as a door-to-door salesperson before founding Spanx. Some billionaires are early risers, others confirmed night owls. Some seem to have been born with superhuman levels of self-belief, others admit to struggling with doubt.
When you read these stories, it’s clear there is no single or even common path to greatness. Which means that when business titans agree on the same piece of advice on how to achieve success, we should all sit up and take notice. In a recent interview with the BBC, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, did just that.
Passion gives you the drive to succeed.
The long interview covers everything from Pichai’s approach to screen time with his kids to how often he talks to Mark Zuckerberg (only sporadically), but the part that made me personally sit up and take notice was when interviewer Amol Rajan asks Pichai what advice he has for anyone from humble beginnings who is striving for great success.
A few years back I happened to stumble on a talk Bill Gates gave to Harvard students in which he was asked a closely related question: how do you choose the right career path when you’re not sure what you want to do with your life? His answer was quirky. “The thing that you’re likely to be world-class at is whatever you obsessed over from age 12 to 18,” Gates responded.
Most of us think of our teenage obsessions as embarrassments or distractions from the main story of our lives, but Gates sees them as a window onto your true passions. And you’re most likely to be super successful at something you’re truly passionate about because passion gives you the drive to put in the hard work that success demands.
It’s not really the answer you’d expect from the sometimes Spock-like Microsoft founder, and apparently he’s not the only billionaire with an unexpected belief in the power of passion to fuel success. In response to Rajan, Pichai answers:
“I’ve always felt that — more than what your mind says — you need to figure out what your heart is excited by. It’s a journey and you will know it when you find it. If you find that, things tend to work out.”
Wait, isn’t “follow your passion” lousy advice?
Like Gates, Pichai seems to believe that following your passions is a more likely path to career domination than cold-hearted calculations about the surest route to the top. But I think there’s also a subtler message here.
Top VC Ben Horowitz and many others have insisted that “follow your passion” is, in fact, lousy career advice. This old chestnut has led many less-than-supremely talented young people to pursue ill-advised careers in the arts, athletics, and other sexy “passion” fields. Alternatively, if you feel no immediate pull towards some activity or career, this advice can leave you floundering.
Both Gates and Pichai are smart, so I’m sure they’ve anticipated these objections. What are they trying to get at then? In the same speech where Horowitz slags off following your passion, he also advises, “Think for yourself. Thinking for yourself sounds both simple and trivial, but in reality it’s extremely difficult and it’s profound.” If you look honestly at your skills and interests and match them with a way you can contribute to solving the world’s problems, then the world will naturally reward you, he concludes.
Which suggests the advice of Gates, Pichai, and Horowitz actually isn’t that different after all. Blindly following your passion into a field you lack the talent for is a bad idea (as is the probably even more common move of pursuing the glamour of a field without even having a vocation for it). But so is ignoring your own strengths and interests and instead just trying to be whatever you imagine the world (or your parents) want you to be.
According to all three moguls the first step to choosing the right career is clear-eyed self-knowledge. Before you can make a dent in the world, you need to know who you truly are, what you like, and what you’re good at. That kind of honesty is hard. It’s also essential for true success in life.