As a CEO, I have many conversations with others about their professional goals. Success has always been important to me, but it means something different. For me, success is defying the culture I grew up in to create a life I am proud of as 100 percent myself, a gay man. It’s not particularly specific, and that was by design. Where I come from, just daring to do what you want to do and be yourself takes a great deal of tenacity. With that tenacity, I found a passion for winning in my professional life, and it brought fulfillment to my personal life. In my experience, searching for professional wins through personal passions is a trap that leaves many people feeling lost.
I was born in Hollywood, California, but my family moved back to Iran while I was still an infant. The cultural differences between Iran and the U.S. are vast, but one of the most significant differences is in LGBTQIA rights. Iran is an intensely conservative and homophobic country, and my childhood was hard. In Iran, being gay is illegal and punishable by imprisonment or execution. I grew up with the fear that my attraction to men would ruin or end my life. I knew that the only way for me to have a normal life and career was to pretend. I decided that I would lead a double life where I would get married, have a family, take up an honorable profession and have affairs with men. That all changed when at the age of 18, I was hit by two vehicles in a fatal accident that killed another individual and broke both of my legs, leaving me unable to walk for a year. My recovery stripped away every bit of happiness and normalcy I had ever known and made me realize just how artificial they’d been to begin with. I couldn’t go through life pretending to be happy as someone I was not. I decided that I would find a way to move back to the U.S. and build an authentic life no matter what.
The challenges I faced growing up in Iran helped build the foundation for my resilience and shape my professional goals. Escaping Iranian culture made me want to build a life of freedom, success, and happiness. That may sound broad, but I was thinking broadly. A common trend I see among professionals is frustration from not finding a career doing what they love. Sure, doing what you love is great work if you can get it, but what a luxury! I didn’t start my real estate career because I loved houses, and I don’t know anyone among the top 20% of real estate agents who did. Like me, most of my colleagues started their real estate careers because they were good at it and found success. Success isn’t so much about doing what you love as it is about loving what you do. Being passionate about your career and having a career in your passion are different things. I found passion in my profession through challenging myself, winning, and challenging myself to do it again. Perhaps it’s because where I come from, someone like me is never a winner.
Building a career out of one’s passion and finding success in doing so is rare in business. That may sound discouraging, but I think it’s empowering. Many people find themselves in an existential crisis trying to figure out what they are passionate about so that they can build a viable career out of it. What if we all let that go and focused on what we were good at instead? What if we used our strengths as a launching pad to build success and quality of life that gives ample opportunity to enjoy our passions? Your passion might be cooking, but you may not be good enough to open a restaurant or write a cookbook. That’s okay! Work hard at what brings you success and buy yourself an amazing kitchen or cooking classes. My very first broker loved to play the piano. I remember asking him once why he didn’t pursue a career in it. He told me flatly that he couldn’t offer his family the life they deserved if he had pursued piano playing as a full-time job. Instead, he plays for his private fulfillment.
Instead of thinking about career passions as your big “what” as in “what am I passionate about?” try thinking of it as your big “why” as in “why do I do the work that I do?” or “why do I get up in the morning?”. My big “why” was having a family and supporting myself to stay in America. As a gay man, I thought being a parent was not possible. But through hard work and leaning into my strengths, I was able to have a family, and I know that one day they will be proud of my success. Your “why” might be building wealth, having a family, changing others’ lives, purchasing a home, or all the above. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to focus on your “why” and worry less about the “what”.