Hey MBAs, Follow Your Passion

Tom Peters

Following a recent business-school lecture, a thoughtful young man asked for a private moment. “What would you advise me to major in,” he began, “marketing, finance, operations?” “But what do you like?” I stammered in response. I could see it was the wrong answer.

I should have been prepared. Just a week before, I’d been on a panel with a prominent business professor. As time grew short, the moderator gave us one last question: “What advice would you give to a young woman or young man seeking a job in business?” My earnest colleague suggested an analysis of industries ticketed for growth, decline, or stagnation. My off-the-top reply: “Do what turns you on. Don’t sweat it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t work for a company that employs over 250 people!” It just spilled out. Still, I wouldn’t change a word of it.

Couple that with a line from “How The Men in Your Office Really See You,” in the November 1991 issue of Working Woman magazine. Several of the boys aired their gripes about women as managers. “To me,” said one called Tony, “emotional behavior in the workplace—except in very rare circumstances—is unacceptable.” (Tony doesn’t elaborate on those “very rare” exceptions, but his subsequent comments suggest that nothing short of gunfire in the office calls for a human reaction.)

Dumbfounded by all this, I have just two questions:

– Has anyone succeeded at anything they didn’t love?

– Is there any room for unemotional behavior in business?

Fast-growing International Data Group publishes 150 magazines, including Computerworld and MacWorld. CEO Pat McGovern has succeeded brilliantly by following a spin-out strategy. He constantly starts new ventures; some spin out their own ventures. Yet McGovern won’t let a publisher head more than a single magazine. “You’ve got to have one person whose life depends on making that publication work,” IDG President Walter Boyd explains, “a person who says, ‘I’m going to build my career based on how well I do on this product.’ Every time we’ve given in to not doing that, we’ve made a mistake.”

In short, few start-ups—inside the corporation or out—succeed without passion. (Many passionate entrepreneurs fail. But that’s not the point. Almost none without passion succeed!) The odds are stacked so high against the entrepreneur that only irrational commitment—i.e., passion, emotion—stands even a chance of carrying the day.

Remember last week’s column? Asea Brown Boveri chief Percy Barnevik said his big company’s thousands of little profit centers work because of the emotion that comes with having real customers. Or consider statistical-process control tools. Important to quality? Sure. But make no mistake, the key to improvement is engaging the workforce—i.e., getting managers to wise up and allow workers to show the same zeal for their on-the-job projects as they do in normal off-the-job (church, association, hobbies) efforts.

If emotion inspires scintillating business performance, it also spurs the right career moves. MBAs often ask me how to assess companies that recruit at their schools. My response: If the interviewer turns you on, move ahead. If she or he is a stiff you wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with, forget it. Don’t assume that he’s the rare jerk in a company of gems.

Early in my consulting career at McKinsey & Co., a colleague offered similar advice. In signing on for projects, he said, “go for the person, not the assignment. A lousy boss can make the best assignment hell. A super boss can make the dullest assignment sparkle.” A couple of times I got conned by the sound of a glitzy assignment and decided I could cope with the meathead in charge. Wrong!

All of which brings me back to that student in search of the “right” major: It is simply inconceivable to me that bright, ambitious people could ever do anything other than follow their heart toward things they care about. For one thing, how can you expect to shine in an arena that doesn’t move you?

If necessary, apprentice yourself for bread and board to someone who can teach you to excel at doing something you already love. (Tough advice for top-school MBAs, I admit. Many borrowed $50,000 or more to finance their education. No wonder they’re suckers for big, dull companies who overpay entry-level MBAs.) Incidentally, my 250-person limit on company size flows from the same well. In smaller firms, talented people have a good chance of making a huge difference, fast. But you’d be amazed at how many job aspirants fail this elementary math test.

Before my lecture, I talked with two students who’d spent the summer working in Eastern Europe; their enthusiasm made me want to sign up. I later urged my young audience to think about hitchhiking to Eastern Europe and hanging out there, low pay and all, for a couple of years. I can’t imagine a more exciting opportunity, or, frankly, one more likely to have long-term financial—not to mention psychic—benefits. But if they insist upon immediately going to work for IBM or Procter & Gamble, well, they could do worse. I guess.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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