Attend enough startup conferences or listen to enough motivational speakers and you’ll hear one piece of advice repeated over and over again: You’ve got to love what you do! If you don’t love what you do, you might as well stay home. No less a giant than Steve Jobs famously told Stanford’s 2005 graduating class, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
I don’t buy it.
There’s nothing wrong with loving what you do, of course – I just don’t think it’s a prerequisite for starting a business or building a fulfilling career, let alone doing great work. In fact, I think it’s disingenuous for really successful people to put so much of the focus on love, just as it’s disingenuous for really rich people to say money doesn’t matter. People tend to romanticize their own motivations and histories. They value what matters to them now, and forget what really mattered to them when they started. It’s human nature, so it’s an easy thing to do.
The way I see it, many great businesses and important innovations are actually born out of frustration or even hate. Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, the co-founders of Uber, didn’t start their ride-sharing service because they loved transportation or logistics. They started it because they were pissed off that they couldn’t get a cab in San Francisco. Kalanick may love running Uber today, but he really hated not having a way to get home. A random brainstorming session one night in Paris turned that frustration into the seed of a multibillion-dollar company.
I talk to other entrepreneurs all the time, and many of their companies sprang into existence for similar reasons—because the founder wanted something that didn’t exist or scoped out an opportunity to do something better than it had been done before. Love for their subject matter may or may not play a role in their stories, but hate for the existing options, along with strong opinions about how things could work, does and is a much better predictor of success.
My own career is no exception. Back in the mid-’90s, I was looking for a simple tool to keep track of my music collection, and all of the available programs seemed bloated and unnecessarily complex. Those are two things I hate, so I set out to make my own tool and eventually released it under the name Audiofile. I didn’t love music collecting. I didn’t even love software development. (I was just learning it at the time.) And I didn’t have any aspirations to run a software business – I just saw a need, and I filled it. Nothing wrong with that. A similar situation led me to start my current company, Basecamp.
Truth be told, even today I don’t always love what I do. The paperwork, the reporting, the day-to-day minutiae that come along with responsibility for a large and growing company – none of those things make me swoon. Yet I’d still rather be running Basecamp than doing anything else. I think I’m good at it, every day I get to do challenging, creative work, and I continue to find making better project-management tools a worthy and rewarding cause. It’s also a real pleasure to work with such amazing people as I do every day of the week.
If I were giving a motivational speech, I’d say that, if you want to be successful and make a real contribution to the world, you have to be intrinsically motivated by the work you do, and you have to feel good about spending your days on it. Love might grow – and it’s a wonderful thing if it does—but you don’t need it up front. You can succeed just by wanting something to exist that doesn’t already.
Printed in the February issue of Inc Magazine