Are You Passionate Or Delusional?

The author was broke, without a "real" job, and his family couldn't take it anymore. Was he truly following his dreams to success, or just kidding himself?

"You’ve got a law degree. You’ve got an MBA. We have no food for the kids. You’ve got to get a real job."

These were the words that came out of my wife’s mouth, and it’s when I knew I didn’t just have a struggling business on my hands, but a real problem. With a lot of soul searching and some key adjustments, I’ve been able to move out of a delusional state and see my company on to success. But I was recently asked, "What is the difference between an entrepreneur who is passionately pursuing a dream and someone who has become delusional?" This insightful question brought me back to a time when I walked that fine line.

The passionate entrepreneur who turns delusional is an interesting phenomenon.

And it's one that may not be avoidable, because the thing that is required to make your business go happens to be the very thing that plants and nourishes the seeds of delusion. You must be positive. You must have an undying belief you will prevail. You must be passionate. Let me take you back about a decade to a time when I had slipped from a state of being very passionate about my business to being totally delusional about it.

Truth be told, I think the difference between passion and delusion isn’t even very distinguishable. I suspect many an entrepreneur has fallen too far down the rabbit hole without even realizing it. It happened to me. Maxed-out credit cards, empty cupboards, and a frustrated spouse helped me wake up to the delusion I created in myself. I was laser-focused on the belief I had to succeed no matter what, which led me to lose sight of reality. My story fortunately has a happy ending. But if I hadn’t faced that reality head-on (and it did indeed feel like a crash), I wouldn’t have been able to honestly evaluate my business and redirect toward a healthier course.

So how can you gauge whether your passion is bordering on delusion and when it’s time to reel it back? I’m a huge Jim Collins fan, and I think he teaches something that can be applied here. Collins refers to it as the Stockdale Paradox and I’m going to explain it in two parts—backwards. The second part says, "Maintain an undying belief that in the end you will prevail." The entrepreneurial rally cry! The first half of the Stockdale Paradox, and the part that I think may be the antidote for delusional thinking, is that you must "confront the brutal facts of your current reality." A true paradox.

Here’s how I interpret Collins’ wisdom to walk that fine line.

1. Develop the personal discipline to stop and take stock of what is really happening with your business, finances, and with the other people involved such as family and employees. I’d suggest scheduling time on your calendar quarterly to make this a priority.

2. Have periodic temperature checks with loved ones. They are in the absolute best position to observe delusion setting in. And yet, because of their love for you, they are also in the worst position to tell you what they are seeing. Invite their candid and caring feedback.

3. Build an advisory board (whether formal or informal) to provide unbiased perspectives. This is different from your governing board, which is likely comprised of investors and stakeholders. The advice, therefore, will also be different and can help lead you to decisions without competing interests in mind.

4. If you find your perception isn’t matching up with your reality, you can always readjust. There’s no rule in entrepreneurship that says you have a shut things down when they’re not working out. For me, facing my delusion caused me to think about how being "all in" with the business was affecting every other aspect of my life. Luckily, we found enough success before the rest of my world came crashing down, but it was a close call.

5. Know that this is a fine line that every entrepreneur walks and you are not alone.
Why would I still wholeheartedly encourage entrepreneurs to go for it given the risks of becoming delusional? The rewards of personal growth and self-actualization that come from creating your own success far outweigh the risk of stifling your entrepreneurial passion.

Your passion to do something great can bring with it the risk of becoming delusional, but stifling your passion to go the safe route brings a far greater consequence. The key is to learn to recognize when the reality of your situation isn’t jibing with what’s going on in your mind, and change course. So ask yourself, are you in a healthy, passionate state or have you become delusional?

Clate Mask is the CEO of Infusionsoft, a sales and marketing software tool designed for small businesses. Find him on Twitter at @ClateMask.

[Image: Flickr user Ilkerender]

Add New Comment


  • Courtney Crosslin

    Clate this read was right on time. I never thought I might be delusional until recently when I made a move to New York -- as a single self-employed, single woman.

    Still I'm not sure that I'm delusional or if I've just gotten too old for the "hustle."

    Either way, every since I had the opportunity to interview you ( you've continued to inspire and motivate me.

    Your transparency and support for business owners is much appreciated!

  • A.Ramirez

    I think this also applies to professions that aren't practical, such as being a writer or an artist. Years ago when I set out to become a writer both as an occupation and profession, the pervading question was whether I'm just passionate or delusional about it. It was a bit of both for me. While I am not the next best anything, I found that you need to be positive but not too much. Use hard work and passion to compensate for the lack of talent until you gain skills, build on that, and maybe you get to have some semblance of talent along the way.

  • Drhowardrankin

    Mrs Disney to her husband: "Walt, enough of that stupid mouse idea!" But there's a difference, of course, between creative license, doubt and uncertainty and practical living. In a way your life circumstances will tell you how you're doing but it's also a great idea, and essential, to get independent, outside opinion as you suggest.  If something isn't working at a practical level it doesn't mean you have to abandon your passion, just that you need to find an alternative route. Finding out what doesn't work is a learning experience, not heeding the lesson is the real failure. 

  • Anthony Reardon

    Very interesting Clate,

    That's some terrific self-disclosure and entrepreneurial insight! I ask myself whether I am passionate or delusional all the time. ;)

    This focus on the aspect of balancing business and life is spot on. I can see how that is a good lead in to software solutions that perhaps provide big picture, client tracking, community feedback, constructive options, and so on. Maybe with the right frame of reference you can "know" you are not crazy, lol!

    Personally, I appreciated how you point out the same thing that drives us can be our undoing. Nature has a way of balancing restraint and reinforcement, so it takes something truly special to keep pushing the envelope, especially when you start second guessing the risks you're taking.

    Best, Anthony

  • Clatem

    Thanks, Anthony.  I appreciate your perspective and I'm always happy to share the realities of entrepreneurship.  Not only have I experienced it myself, but I see the challenges through the eyes of our 15,000 Infusionsoft customers.  Entrepreneurship is awesome... and it's not for the faint of heart!

  • Anthony Reardon

    My pleasure Clate, you do a great job inspiring. I just know there is some small business owner out there driving themselves mad working 80+ hour workweek, perhaps spending hours just rejecting software solicitations, and just wanting to have enough time/ energy at the end of the day to really be present with their family. I've always said it's not the technology, but the people that use it. You obviously get it, so thanks for making my day!