Fire in the Belly

You Don’t Have What It Takes

When I was 23 years old, I was a management-trainee at a corrugated box plant in Orlando, Florida. If you’ve ever seen The Office that’s EXACTLY where I worked – right down to the charming salesman, the hated HR rep, and the attractive receptionist. While on a team-building fishing trip, the plant manager, who had only been at the plant for about two weeks, approached me and asked me about my ambitions with the company. I responded with some vague platitudes regarding “developing skills” and “learning the industry” hoping we could quickly change the subject back to fishing. Instead he said, “I don’t think you have what it takes to succeed in this business.”

I was thunderstruck. Personally, I was quite open to the idea that he might be right, but you don’t just say that to someone! You especially don’t say it to someone you barely know. He continued, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you really don’t seem to have the fire-in-the-belly to succeed here. This may not be the right job for you.” He was right and he was wrong.

I’ve always been plenty ambitious, and I’ve always been enthusiastic and agreeable, but he was right that I didn’t have the “fire-in-belly” for boxes. He was sensing, accurately, that I didn’t have a passion for the business. For crying out loud who on Earth leaves college with a burning passion for cardboard boxes? Certainly, nobody I was willing to hang out with.

Passion Comes From Small Successes

He was wrong, though, that I didn’t have what it takes to be successful at that company. He made a fundamental error in the sequence of passion and success. His assumption, as conventional wisdom dictated, was that passion leads to success. Stated another way, success is the result of passion. I will not dispute that there are very successful people who have followed their passions to fabulous fame and fortune, but passion-pursuit doesn’t work for most of us.  Most of us do not enter the working world with a clear vision of strong career passions, and yet so many of us somehow end up quite passionate about our work – even if that work is something “boring” like insurance, accounting, or boxes.

The reality is that passion is more often the cumulative outcome of many small successes.  Those successes take place over a long period of time in a collaborative and supportive environment that enables a person to flourish professionally. Passion is born from an active partnership between an employee and a company that begins with accountability.  When a person starts with accountability, they enable skills mastery, professional progress, contribution, and autonomy.  The cumulative effect of those is “purpose”. Yeah, that takes a while. 

Take Responsibility for your Employees’ Passion

Managers looking for “passionate” hires must understand that passion is not a personality type. It’s not a skill. And it should not be confused with ambition. Passion is a state of mind that is intrinsically connected to their work environment; it’s not transferrable.  If you want passionate employees you must make them yourself, you don’t get to reap what another has sown.

The missing “fire-in-the-belly” observed by my plant manager had nothing to do with my lack of enthusiasm for boxes. It was the result of working for over a year in an environment in which I had no discernable career path, had received little training, had no meaningful impact upon anyone, and was largely ignored by the management team. Even had I arrived with “fire-in-the-belly”, my work environment would have extinguished it soon enough.

There is no doubt that passionate people are more successful (insert your favorite definition of success here), but don’t make the same mistake of my plant manager by attributing success to passion. If you want passionate employees, then take responsibility for providing the work environment in which passion is possible.

Seth Preus
Seth Preus

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”

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