Thursday, 24 September 2015

Put more effort into a project and you'll become more passionate about it

The entrepreneur is one of the archetypes of our age, defined above all – if countless commencement speeches and hagiographies are anything to go by – by the passion they hold for their business, allowing them to devote so much to it. New research by Michael Gielnik and colleagues published in the Academy of Management Journal suggests this common belief has things backwards: in fact entrepreneurs get passionate because they get stuck in.

The first study spent eight weeks surveying 54 German entrepreneurs during the pre-launch period of their budding business opportunity. They answered questions like “In the last week, how much effort did you put into venture tasks beyond what was immediately required?” and rated their agreement with statements like “In the last week, establishing a new company excited me”. Their answers were used to generate ratings of effort and passion. The researchers found that for each entrepreneur, fluctuation in these two ratings could be explained by one relationship: the previous week’s effort influenced this week’s passion, such that more effort led to more passion.

Another study looked at this more systematically, asking 136 students to develop a business idea by answering questions about likely competitors, customers, and the conditions and trends of the market. In the primary condition, participants could choose between twelve possible business ideas or even put forward one of their own. The key question was whether their entrepreneurial passion would be higher following the task than it was prior to it. The experiment established that it was, but only under certain conditions.

Firstly, in a variation in which participants were only given 30 minutes to spend on the task, and told it was an unimportant pilot study (as opposed to being given an hour and told that their efforts would make a real difference), their subsequent appetite for founding a business was unaffected. This suggests investing minimal effort is not enough to boost passion. Secondly, half of the participants received feedback that their analysis was superficial and that they hadn’t advanced the readiness of this business idea. For these participants, it didn’t matter how much effort they invested, their passion didn’t tip upwards. Making an effort without seeing any impact is also not enough to boost passion.

One more factor: in another variant of the study, participants weren’t given free reign to select their entrepreneurial goal, but were handed one to work on. In this case, their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.

Although there are undoubtedly character traits that lead some people to find passion more readily, it doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It requires an engagement with the world, an engagement this study suggests has a particular structure. Free choice, results, and genuine effort: the three ingredients that passion needs.


Gielnik, M., Spitzmuller, M., Schmitt, A., Klemann, D., & Frese, M. (2014). "I Put in Effort, Therefore I Am Passionate": Investigating the Path from Effort to Passion in Entrepreneurship Academy of Management Journal, 58 (4), 1012-1031 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0727

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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