The Key To Success? Your 11-Year-Old Self

Starting a business is, in many ways, about finding your passion.
June 07, 2011

Starting a business is, in many ways, about finding your passion. It’s about deciding what kind of business you want to have and how you want to run it. Many people have spent years turning a spark of an idea over and over in their heads before they open their doors; others know they’re unsatisfied in a 9 to 5 office environment, know they want to be their own boss and build something from the ground up, but they’re not sure what that business idea is. If you’re in this place of limbo, I’d encourage you to join me in a little exercise:

I know it sounds a little silly, but I want you to spend some time thinking about what you enjoyed when you were a child. Specifically, think about when you were 11. What did you love to do? What was your passion at that time? Maybe you were interested in cooking, or spent your spare time decorating your room, or ran a heck of a babysitting business and took joy out of depositing your wages into your passbook savings and the local bank (guilty).

The reason this exercise is beneficial, says Deborah Sweeney, the CEO of MyCorporation,  company that helps entrepreneurs during the startup phase, is relatively simple: it helps you identify what you truly enjoy doing. You’re much more likely to be successful if you’re involved in something you love. “If this is just a passing idea, not something you’re truly interested in, your employees and customers will feel that, investors will feel that. From a practical standpoint, we talk to hundreds of businesses every day, and it seems that most have always wanted to do whatever they’re doing. Maybe they loved to cook and they’re now a chef starting a small business, or they loved to take walks around the neighborhood and now they’re a real estate agent. In most cases, they can remember back and recognize always having that passion.”

Of course, that last example seems like a bit of a stretch—walking around your neighborhood could just as likely lead to a career in exercise—and you may find that your childhood passions are hard to translate into a career, too. But often, they key isn’t just want you loved doing, it’s why you loved doing it.

“I always liked making lists, because I love organization. I became a lawyer and eventually started a legal filing business, because of the passion I have around helping businesses that are at that young age, when they’re just starting up and full of excitement.  Organization is so key then,” says Sweeney.

Now it’s your turn. Here are some tips to help you dig deep:

  • Ask others for help. You might not remember much about what you were really into as a kid, but I bet your mom, dad or older siblings would. It’s certainly worth a try, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are able to re-light a fire that you have long forgotten about.
  • Focus on loose connections. Sweeney was a cheerleader, but is she a professional cheerleader now? No. But that activity, like her penchant for organization, does translate into her day-to-day life because she tends to focus on being really enthusiastic with her team and her business’s customers. Because she’s working with entrepreneurs and startups, that enthusiasm is necessary and much appreciated. Think about your childhood passions in the same way: Maybe you can’t do exactly what you enjoyed then, but what can you take from it? What kind of skills were necessary, and how can you use those skills in a profitable business?
  • Leave the money out of it. For now—we’ll get to that next. But during this initial brainstorming, you really want to pretend that money is no object, because only then can you get at the truth. “When you’re 11, you’re just realizing what the world is about, you're more naïve and less money-motivated, and so you know that whatever you were into then was genuine,” explains Sweeney. If you get into a business for money, and money alone, it will be hard to be successful, and even harder to be happy.
  • Think practically. Now it’s time to get down to business, and this is where money—profitability, in particular—comes into play. A passion does make a business, so you need to survey the marketplace and see where your idea fits in. If it’s being done, can you do it better? Can you bring something to the table that isn’t already there? And can you make your idea profitable? This is when meeting with a business advisor—someone from the SBA or SCORE, a seasoned small business owner—or a mentor can be really helpful, because that person can look at your dreams and see if they’re rooted in reality.

Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and author of "Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved." She recently launched the Jean Chatzky Score Builder in partnership with Check out her blog at and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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