The problem with passion

I had the good fortune to cross paths with a truly remarkable individual not too long ago.

Her name is Mina Guli, and her story is jaw dropping.

Mina was one of the inaugural clients of my Speech Cheater startup.  As you might have guessed from the name of the service, we wrote a keynote and presentation for her. Having presented that speech last week to a Global YPO audience, Mina gave the nod to turn the it into a blog post.

For anyone wondering if there’s something, well, more for them out there – this speech is well worth a read. So, without further ado, I give you Mina Guli.


  Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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I love this quote from Margaret Mead. It says so much about the power of passion. Every time the world needs fixing, a small tribe of passionate people seems to get together to fix it.

Truth is, any one of us, all of us, can do great things. So why don’t more of us do great things? It seems the problem with passion is turning it into action.

My passion is helping save the world’s water. Like most of you, I do a bunch of little things – turning off the tap when I brush my teeth, and taking quick showers.

But I felt more needed to be done. I launched a water charity and ran across deserts to raise awareness. I’m trying to inspire people around the world to save water.

It’s a massive undertaking. I often wonder why I didn’t just leave it at turning off the tap.

But once you’ve experienced the euphoria of acting on your passion, nothing else comes close.

Perhaps, in sharing my story, I can motivate you to turn your passion into action. And make the world a better place.

It started with a broken back

I was raised in Australia. I had a normal life. Normal family.

I loved school, but hated sports. I was terrible at sports.

One day in my early 20’s, we were horsing around at a pool. One of my friends picked me up, tried to throw me in, and dropped me on the edge.

They took me to hospital. The doctor said I had a broken back. He told me I wouldn’t run again.

Well, I was hopeless at running anyway, so not running wasn’t such a big deal.

What was a big deal was the doctor saying I couldn’t do something. That rubbed me the wrong way.

That’s where my passion first bubbled to the surface. I get pretty stoked up when people tell me I can’t do something.

The doctor recommended I start swimming for rehab. So I did. Twice a week. About 2 laps each time.

I told my friend, who was a triathlete. She said “Terrific. Come swim with us.”

As I mentioned, I get passionate about a challenge. So I agreed.

I dragged myself out of bed at 5am. I did 10 laps. They all did about 10 kilometers. Despite being completely outgunned, I liked it. It was much nicer swimming with them than swimming alone.

I think that’s another hallmark of my passion. I like being in a group of people who love the same thing. I call them my tribe.

When my tribe had me up to three days a week in the pool, they asked if I’d like to go for a cycle with them. First time out, I went 30 minutes – they did 5 hours.

Again, completely outgunned. But fun.

There’s a suburb outside Melbourne called Frankston Beach. It’s a cycling destination. I’ll never forget the first day I made it to Frankston and back. 70 kilometers. The feeling was incredible.

So what came next? One of my tribe said to me “Mina, you should try the Ironman.” Nine months after breaking my back, I did my first Ironman.

Fast forward to today. I’m about to run seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks. It’ll be a world record.

People have a hard time understanding this if they don’t understand what led to it. To me, passion means taking on a challenge – doing something other people say I can’t do; doing it with a group of like-minded individuals; pushing myself to see how far I can go; and of course, the ecstasy.

My mom told me when I was 24, “Mina, I used to have to drag you out of bed to get on with the day. Now, you’re up 3 hours before everyone else. Nobody has to get you out of bed for this.

And this, despite the fact I’m still hopeless at sport. I’m really slow, I’m not built for any of the sports I do, and at times it’s excruciatingly painful.

It’s complicated, I know.

Don’t expect your passion to be uncomplicated. And be open to it taking you somewhere unexpected. Passion works in mysterious ways.

Set up for failure?

I’ve described how finding your passion can be problematic. Equally problematic is chasing it.

Success is 5% talent, and 95% hard work. True, with passion, the work becomes easier to bear. But there’s always resistance. A lot of it comes from those around you.

But you don’t just have to contend with other people holding you back. If you let your passion drive you uncontrollably forward, you can actually burn yourself out.

Yes, your passion can be the most important thing in your life. But it can’t be the only thing in your life. If you’re just about one thing, you become intolerable. And you increase the odds you’ll get sick of your passion, or begin to question your sanity. Both bad things.

It happened to me, in the form of self-sabotage.

To me, running across deserts was a terrific challenge, until I’d done it a few times. Then I wanted to make it harder. So I started to carry a 10 kilo pack on my runs.

My excuse was that it made me self-sufficient on the run. Which is crazy. You’re never alone on these runs. You have GPS, support teams. You don’t need to pack a tent, for God’s sake.

But it’s a common thing. People swim across the ocean. Then they swim in sub-zero temperatures. Then they swim in shark-infested waters. They push themselves to the breaking point. And sometimes, they break. It’s self-destructive behaviour, and a waste of your passion.

Your tribe can help you avoid this. My tribe eggs me on.

My tribe also pulls me back when I go too far and I’m going to get hurt or burn out. They make sure I don’t set myself up for failure.

I’m kind of like my sister’s dog that way. My sister has a big dog. I remember being at her house, and putting food on the coffee table. She told me to put the food in the middle of the table, not the edge.

I asked why. She said that her dog would walk by, and eat the food off the table.

I told her, why not just keep the dog from eating the food?

What she said was interesting. “Why would I set him up for failure?”

Bigger than yourself

We’ve covered a few of the problems with passion. How it can be hard to identify. How it comes with nasty by-products like burnout and self-sabotage.

I want to finish by hitting on what I believe is the biggest problem with passion.


I speak at a lot of schools about my passion. And each time, I have a lot of kids come up afterwards to tell me what their passion is. You know what a lot of them say? “My passion is to be rich.”

To me, that’s problematic.

I think passion is a terrible thing to waste on the pursuit of riches.

On the other hand, you have to hand it to these kids – they’ve found something they’re passionate about. It took me a while to figure out how to handle this, before it dawned on me.

To succeed in your passion, you need a tribe. In order to build a tribe, you have to give them a selfish reason to support you.

That’s easy on a sports team. Or in a band. You’re there for each other. It’s harder to see in individual sports. If you support me in my long distance running, where’s the benefit to you? That’s problematic.

It’s even more problematic when it comes to extremely self-centered pursuits like getting rich. Maybe that’s why you see so many divorces among powerful people. One person always feels like the supporter who gets nothing in return. Money isn’t a reason to support you.

That’s why you see many people who arrive at wealth, only to be disappointed that money can’t buy happiness or friends…or support from a tribe. There are a lot of lonely, bored rich people out there.

I think I found the trick. I turned my passion for sport into passion for a greater good.

A cause. When you do that, I discovered, you don’t discourage your tribe. In fact, you build your tribe by leaps and bounds.

I have proof it works.

I was moderating a World Economic Forum panel on water. I discovered from all these smart, inspired people around me, that we’re using water faster than it can be replenished. It shook me awake.

I decided I had to do something about it.

Now, I had a hard time bending the arms of powerful people. People need to see their money’s going to make a difference, not just support some lady running across the desert. Can’t blame them for that. They want to join the tribe, but they’re a bit cautious. I had to show them what success looked like, before I asked for their support.

That led to us brainstorming a brilliant idea. We got hundreds of school kids, had them stand in the shape of a water dragon, and took a photo. The photo went viral. 60 million people saw it. Suddenly, all the powerful folk got interested. They began to sponsor my runs for water awareness. They told their friends to get aboard. It snowballed.

So now, I’m about to set off on this epic seven continent desert run. I’m not doing it alone, because I’m not doing it for me.

I’m doing it to help preserve the world’s water, something everyone can get passionate about. So you could say, I’m doing it with a million people in my tribe. And I don’t intend to let them down.

Our world is full of problems that need solving. I’m challenging you, find a problem, find your passion, and make the change you believe in.

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