The Passionate Self

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of passion since my post about narcissism. It’s also come up in a variety of places, from conversations I’ve had with friends, to books I’m reading. I don’t know if this is one of those coincidental things, or because the universe is trying to tell me something, or just that I’m noticing it because it’s on my mind.

Where to start? Let’s start with the book I’m reading, The Only Sustainable Edge, by Hagel and Brown (terrible book, by the way, which is why I’m not linking to its Amazon page – I had high hopes because I loved Brown’s book, The Social Life of Information, but the ideas in this one are banal and the writing is stultifying). It points out that in the world of growing specialization, the companies that only do one thing are driven to be the best in the world at it because they have nothing else. The large conglomerates will never be as driven to excel in that area because they have other divisions which can carry them. It’s the companies who focus only on that one area that will push the edge of innovation, because it’s all riding on the line for them – if they fail at their one area, they’re out of business.

This tied into some thoughts I have been having about my career. One of the reasons I’m in the process of turning my back on programming is that I never had the passion for it. It wasn’t what drove me. And I knew that without that passion, I would never be great at it. I had the aptitude, and could generally make computers do what I want, but I never cared enough to stay up late working on my own coding projects. That kind of passion is what is necessary to make that transition from good to great. Like the company that only does one thing, and therefore has to excel at it to stay alive, the passionate programmer is defined by his programming skills and continues to push himself to improve and get better. Meanwhile, I am more like the conglomerate, doing a little bit of everything, but not putting it all on the line for any one thing.

The flip side of passion is the risk of failure. Like the company risking bankruptcy, those with passion are driven by the fear of failure to achieve greater heights than they would otherwise. Since they are defined by their passion, they must succeed or lose their identity. Sink or swim. Life or death. It’s risky, but exhilarating. Risk is the only way to achieve greatness.

In that other post, I mentioned that I couldn’t really think of anything that I was passionate about. I think that part of that is my unwillingness to truly risk myself, put myself out there on the line and give something my all. If I choose to be really passionate about something, then there’s the risk of failure. If I just kind of dabble in things, then I can never really fail, because I’m just dabbling… I’m not really trying.

My life is a series of dabblings. When it came time to really commit and put time and effort into something, that was when I decided it was time to move on. And that’s kind of sad.

I like to tell myself that it’s because I’m still searching for my true passion. But maybe it’s just that I need to take the defenses down and pursue something that is already in front of me. I’ve kind of arranged to commit to this New York experience for a couple years. I’m not giving myself an easy way out. It’s up to me to make it work. It’s a risk, but maybe it’s a risk that will finally coax me out of settling for being good and try for being great.

Part of what drives this is seeing my friends pursue their passion and succeed. If I moved in a different social circle, I might have been content with where I was, making a very comfortable living doing something I was good at. But I am surrounded by friends who have achieved amazing things because they followed their passion, from the Squid Labs boys to Chad, discoverer of new planets. to Jofish publishing papers about LiveJournal. I want that for myself. But I’m realizing that wanting isn’t enough. I have to push myself way out of my comfort zone, pick something and pursue it. We’ll see what happens. I’m still not quite sure where I’m going. I’ll probably have to course correct along the way. But I think it’ll be good for me.

10 thoughts on “The Passionate Self

  1. I’d put a different spin on it: excellence in certain fields or professions requires a certain level of monomania — being fixated on a single idea or activity to the exclusion of all else. Which is fine for those people who are naturally pretty single-minded.

    But not everybody is that focused, and that’s good; being able to span disciplines is valuable, too — vital, even. You need people who can see the forest as well as individual trees. It’s not as obvious a passion, but I think the dabbling/synthesizing interest can be passionate, too. (And yes, it can also be a sign of not yet finding your True Calling™.)

    I think you hit on it exactly with the points about risk: monoculture can be more productive than a strategy of diversity, but it’s dangerous. It’s like sexual vs asexual reproduction; there’s a time and place for each.

  2. Good points, Beemer. But part of the reason for this post is to remind myself that risk is not a bad thing in and of itself. I tend to play it way too safe and conservative in all aspects of my life, never putting myself in a position to fail or get hurt. So part of the realization that I’m trying to convey is that sometimes risk is necessary to achieve more. It’s committing to bigger swings, both up and down, rather than evening things out. Spiky vs. bland. And, yes, it doesn’t have to be either/or, I can pursue different strategies in different parts of life.

    Part of it was also just this realization that I don’t think I can be great at something I’m not passionate about. I can be very good. But not great. And since I tend to believe in the GE mantra that you shouldn’t be in a business if you can’t be one of the best, that makes the question of finding a passion more important.

    I do think there is something to be said for calling myself a synthesist. It may even be a passion. But I need to mull that over a while longer.

  3. I’m with ya. There’s this strange aspect of growing up wanting to be a Scientist™ because you’ve heard all the great stories about people making discoveries that kinda leaves you in the lurch when you realize that you’re really not obsessive enough to be the kind of researcher who might become a nobel laureate. I struggle with balancing wanting to excel at my job, but also wanting to do other things with my life.

    One thing I’ll note about the GE mantra is that you can be one of the best in the business, even if you’re not utterly consumed by passion for it, simply by finding a business niche that is small and out-of-the-ordinary. I really like my job, and though it’s not ZOMG-best-thing-EVAR I daresay that I’m one of the world’s best disaster-recovery-related educational computer game developers. (Although, by the same token, I suppose I’m one of the world’s worst, too…)

    Anyway, none of this is to argue against seeking out more passion and taking more risks in your life. I think it’s mostly just me talking out my own attempts to come to grips with having many small passions in my life rather than one big one…

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