Yesterday I received an email that got me thinking. The basic implication was that I was “bottom-feeding”, using shock and awe to attract the “young and hip” employees from “little companies” and that as long as I continued to use strong language, I’d never have a professional demeanor as a marketer.

In short, I’d be a starving swear-word artist. Can you imagine my street show? A little cardboard sign reads “Will professionally curse you out for $5” while folks smirk and walk by a bit faster.

Obviously, I’m not a starving artist. One look at my client roster, which includes Fortune 100’s, and you’d expect me to a) drive a much fancier car and b) wear a tie and get a shave.

I’m wickedly good at what I do and it translates into everything I do, even my clothing. That means I avoid things like… ties, because ties are for logos, not necks. Instead of khakis, I wear jeans. Instead of polished patent leather dress shoes, I sport chucks which are, by necessity, matched to my shirt color for the day. And if it’s a really fancy event, I wear my black chucks and just match the laces – I’m no showboat. It means I live by my own sword; I’m so much harder on myself and my work than anyone on the outside would ever believe (just like you are on yourself).

Does being wickedly good at marketing mean that more conservative clients occasionally forgive my eccentricities? Maybe. Although, I tend not to work with people who flinch at my company name. I only have two criteria for picking my clients:

  1. Do I Like You?
  2. Do I Like What You Stand For?

The only thing I could think to say in response to this email: please do not mistake my passion for edgy marketing as “youthful ignorance”.

There’s a lot of “advice” heading to entrepreneurs and freelancers about the concept of passion. The holy grail of owning your own business is to be following your passion, doing that thing that you were meant to do. It goes right along with working with the “right” people. Somedays that means the people who laugh at my jokes, for instance, and even under those circumstances the occasional nightmare client can still slip through (to be fair, I’m fucking hilarious).

Building a business around your passion is all well and good when you’re specifically passionate about a particular thing, or industry, that can be turned into a product or service you can sell. But what happens if you’re specifically passionate about things that aren’t something sold in stores or by a contractor? Or if you just have no freakin clue what your passion is supposed to be? What happens is, small business owners tend to build a business around their interests and abilities, but not their passions – because passions seem so final, so definite. Like, you should have had this mystical tattoo that told you your destiny from beginning to end.

When your passions aren’t naturally things you can turn into products or services, the advice to follow your passions sounds like a load of crap, because it is when you don’t know what your passion is or how to find it.

Or if you’re really like me and the things you’re passionate about are fictional in nature, like Star Trek? You’re hosed! (I weave it into my audio drama and Ignite Talks, for now. Someday: a Star Trek novel with my name on it.)

What’s really happening here: truly talented and exceptional people often have no earthly idea what their passion is because it has not been threatened recently.

For passions to stand up and be counted, they must occasionally be threatened. That email? Threatening. The prospect of a major life change? Threatening. Under duress, the important stuff comes out – the things you really care about.

Three types of things become clear when you examine your passions:

  • Passions: the thing(s) you were meant to do.
  • Interests: things you enjoy doing, probably a lot, but that you don’t see as a passion.
  • Abilities: things you can do, probably really well, but that someone has to pay you a lot of money to do.

If you can’t seek out a threat because everybody just loves you – which is my sign that I’m not doing my job – there are two steps you can take to identify your passion.

First: you have to understand that being passionate about a generality is the first step in being passionate about a specific thing. For instance, I passionately love to problem solve. It doesn’t matter what industry, question, place, time, person, or business – if there’s a problem I know about, I’m working on fixing it.

This passion, plus an interest in web design and in small business allows me to be (specifically) a wicked good web developer for small businesses. Is it the thing I was meant to do? Probably not, but it’s not like I hate doing it, either. So I happily code away on small business sites in between tourettes-style binges in my marketing campaigns.

Meanwhile, I’ve given myself the time for the second step in identifying passions and reflect on my actual passions and have built WTF Marketing up around story-based marketing. It allows me to combine two passions: my passion for violating the status-quo and my passion for problem solving, usually alongside my third passion of making people laugh.

The glorious thing about life is that we have some semblance of free will. Sure, we’ve gotta pay taxes and try to be civilized to some extent, but beyond that we’re pretty much free to do what we want. Sometimes that freedom is paralyzing – being able to do what we want means we can truly do what we want – and for most of our pre-professional life, we’re told what to do. When we get into the good stuff, we have no idea what to do.

The next time someone tells you to follow your passions when it comes to small business, resist the urge to punch ’em in the face. They’re mostly right.

(Header Photo: Everlast)