Taking the plunge into the entrepreneurial pool is well and good, but it’s important to develop enduring competencies before you follow your passion.
Just do it: it’s one of the most common pieces of advice tossed around in the startup community.
I think there is no other notion that has done more harm than good to the talent and ambitions of many than that of “taking the plunge”. Analogies include “there is never a good time”, “follow your passion”, “it’s now or never”, and my favourite, “one life, one chance”! These misplaced sparks get further fuelled by the host of carefully manicured stories – be it the rags-to-riches ones and those of school dropouts who made a killing or teenage millionaires.
However, what we conveniently gloss over are the ones who didn’t make it. These outnumber the ones who made it by at least a few thousands.
Proficiency before passion
We fall for the exceptions at the cost of learning from the norm. I am not suggesting one “follow” norms but do believe that preparation, timing and, most important, competence, play a greater role than sheer passion. Passion without competence can be a dead end. Let me explain how.
Can a person with utmost self-confidence but without adequate skills climb Mount Everest? I don’t think so. Self-confidence, belief in oneself, passion, perseverance, et al, may be necessary conditions but aren’t sufficient to climb any summit. There isn’t any substitute for knowledge and skills in the domain, in this case climbing, without which one is destined to fall, quite literally.
We see scores of youngsters pursuing their dreams of starting off without building sufficient capabilities. Worst still, there are VCs and angel investors who don’t shy away from making people believe that there is money at the end of the funnel (read tunnel and the incoming train!). The media does the rest by selectively picking and pruning lucky ones.
Most conversations on competence development happen post math, once the person has resigned from a job, dropped out from higher studies, or has over-invested in an idea.
Real competencies are significant and enduring, and take time to build. I reckon that between building competencies and seeking opportunities, the former must be impressed upon and, that too, rather urgently.
Just to reiterate, passion without competence is a dead end.
Let me offer three insights culled from my research and practice on how to develop enduring competencies before one follows their passion.
Picking up hobby projects while on the job
I had this hunch for a long time that if an employee has a business idea, s/he should work on it well before leaving the organisation. Adam Grant, in his book Originals, offered confidence to my gut feel. A firm provides you with the necessary resources, in terms of infrastructure, connects, legitimacy, talent, and, most importantly, psychological safety, to experiment and even fail while working on an idea. Most employees underestimate the support that their employers offer and overestimate their own capabilities.
Nothing better than putting a few assumptions to test before one takes the plunge.
In our offices, a lot of time and energy is wasted on small talk and navigating political toxicity. I haven’t seen anyone who is meaningfully busy for eight hours a day, day after day. That way, your work leaves you with enough time to try new things.
Companies like Google and 3M make it a point that employees pick up hobby projects and use the organisation’s resources to shape their ideas. If not entrepreneurs, such policies certainly help create intrapreneurs.
So, take a long hard look at your employment before you call it off. It’s more valuable than you think, and there is no assurance that you will do wonders in the open market with your idea which has barely been put to the test.
Honing and expressing a point of view
I believe that having a point of view is like having a backbone. Without one, you can’t stand; if it’s rigid, you can’t function.
You need to have a certain disposition, of course, backed by experience and/or hard facts. In a collectivist society like ours, it’s a practice to blend in. One tends to have an ambivert view towards things or chooses to align with the power centre.
However, if you must be on your own someday, you need to have clear thought processes and conviction such that people buy your arguments. And that doesn’t come unless you have gone through the grind yourself.
Further, having a point of view is of no consequence unless you put it to test and that happens by selectively expressing it. You need to be careful about the medium, the tone and the ways of communicating, and with whom.
Think of the many technologists working in large tech firms who regularly contribute blogs and codes to open platforms. That’s not for money, but to express and validate their point of view.
Remember, your ideas should reach your audience before your product does. That calls for having an audience before you have your customers.
Building a vibrant community transcending geographies
Finally, it’s the power of network. I can’t impress more on the notion that “your network is your net worth”. In this connected economy, there may be a lot of noise, but quality content still has value. That’s why perhaps for close to a decade Harvard Business Review has maintained its position and The Economist still has few parallels.
Can you do the same to yourself, perhaps not at that scale?
With a research and practice-backed point of view, which is well articulated and selectively expressed, you need a community that can appreciate what you are saying and occasionally critique your ideas.
It’s not all that difficult to create and maintain, for access to information is getting democratised and people are yearning for good quality content.
Won’t it be wonderful if you could not only test assumptions but also your own mettle, and build a network before you take the plunge?
That’s what I call competence- skills, point of view, and captive audience. With these in place, opportunities will be galore. So, don’t just deep dive. Take stock of your capabilities, invest in building those, and, then and only then, follow your passion.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)