Yesterday morning I woke up with a flash of inspiration about a topic I wanted do discuss with other Foo Campers. It’s a topic I’ve ruminated about before, in the context of work, pleasure and the pursuit of happiness, and it seemed especially relevant here: what if everyone followed their passions?
Here's the description I posted on the big board (and on the Foo Calendar):
What if everyone followed their passions, liked what they did and did what they liked? I suspect Foo Camp represents an unusually high proportion of people who are following this trajectory. Are we a privileged class? How generalizable is this formula? How would the world change if everyone acted this way? Could the world move in this direction?
Among the topics I'd hoped to explore was whether the empowerment that is increasingly being realized by people who can develop code in developed countries can be exported to people with less developed technical sophistication in less developed countries ... that is, does the pursuit of passion scale, or is it likely to remain the purview of a privileged few?
This may be more the norm than the exception at Foo Camp, but the discussion evolved in a way I never anticipated, and by the end of the session, I'd shifted my focus of attention from ability to desirability of exporting empowerment to pursue passions ... not unlike my shift in perspective regarding the desirability of exporting democracy.
We started out by talking about how people have fun ([re]visiting a theme that Tim O'Reilly - and others - emphasized throughout ETech 2007), distinguishing between solo pursuits and those that involve other people (distributed passion), and noting the challenges of maintaining passion in an institutional context, especially as one "progresses" up the ranks. Perhaps the Peter Principle - emphasizing the tendency of people in a hierarchical organization to be promoted to their level of incompetence - is really more about passion than about competence - that people are promoted to levels or roles for which they feel little or no passion ... which may help explain the lack of positivity in the workplace ... which often leads to widespread (and costly) employee disengagement.
Eric Hodel shared the story of Espresso Vivace, which was co-founded by a Boeing engineer who decided, in mid-career, to indulge his passion for coffee. I have no idea whether the co-founder had reached a level of disengagement (or incompetence) in his previous career trajectory, but from all reports, he is enjoying very high levels of engagement and competence in roasting great coffee (to the benefit of many of his customers).
Turning toward the topic of exporting, or at least promoting, passionate engagement, Dale Dougherty raised the question of whether I was assuming that, say, farmers in developing countries weren't passionate about their work, or were less passionate than, say, hackers in more developed countries ... and I guess I was. He then noted that people often find a way to connect with (and through?) their work, and I agree that jobs often "grow" on people. Dan Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, observed the human brain's penchant for I might call pervasive postrationalization, i.e., being able to rationalize all choices and actions after the fact(s). This is all well and good, but I'm not sure that rationalization is a Good Thing ... or that all things that grow on (or in) people are positive.
BJ Fogg shared his experience with a summer job dealing with medical records on microfiche. The co-workers for whom this type of job was their career spent most of their time talking about upcoming or past trips (typically to Vegas), suggesting that their passions were pursued in other places. He also noted Rick Warren's passion for (and book on) the Purpose Driven Life, whose success in igniting passion in others is [becoming] legendary, as it feeds many (most?) people's desire to have a mission in life ... though I've recently started questioning grand Missions and Purposes, and opening to the possibility of living without a Goal.
Gina Trapani observed that passion is something you do because you can't not do it, and suggested that sometimes (often?), the association of a paycheck with a pursuit tends to diminish the passion ... highlighting the tension between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations ... and leading me to ponder what proportion of Foo Campers derive their income from anything resembling a regular paycheck. She also mentioned a documentary, Riding Giants, that chronicles, among other things, a kind of post-partum depression that often sets in after a big-wave surfers achieve a peak experience (not unlike some of her feelings after finishing a writing or programming project), highlighting the darker side of pursuing passion ... and setting us on a course in which my conviction on the primacy of passion started unraveling ...
Rich Gibson (who offered the coolest, and perhaps most apt, affiliation description I heard at Foo Camp: "unfunded thinktank") chimed in on the notion that passion is not necessarily a good thing, suggesting that sometimes it’s like an affliction we have. BJ noted the high or buzz that often accompanies peaks of passion, raising the question of whether passion is [like] an addiction. Dale likened it more to the flow state, which includes a very high level of engagement, rather than an addiction or affliction (per se) ... but it was too late (for me) ... I was already starting to question the Goodness of passion.
At this point, I decided to look up the definition of passion in Merriam-Webster:
Main Entry: pas·sion
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin passion-, passio suffering, being acted upon, from Latin pati to suffer -- more at PATIENT
1 often capitalized a : the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death b : an oratorio based on a gospel narrative of the Passion
2 obsolete : SUFFERING
3 : the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces
4 a (1) : EMOTION <his ruling passion is greed> (2) plural : the emotions as distinguished from reason b : intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction c : an outbreak of anger
5 a : ardent affection : LOVE b : a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept c : sexual desire d : an object of desire or deep interest
- pas·sion·less /-l&s/ adjective
synonyms PASSION, FERVOR, ARDOR, ENTHUSIASM, ZEAL mean intense emotion compelling action. PASSION applies to an emotion that is deeply stirring or ungovernable <was a slave to his passions>. FERVOR implies a warm and steady emotion <read the poem aloud with great fervor>. ARDOR suggests warm and excited feeling likely to be fitful or short-lived <the ardor of their honeymoon soon faded>. ENTHUSIASM applies to lively or eager interest in or admiration for a proposal, cause, or activity <never showed much enthusiasm for sports>. ZEAL implies energetic and unflagging pursuit of an aim or devotion to a cause <preaches with fanatical zeal>. synonym see in addition FEELING
This reminded me of some earlier thoughts about work, play and suffering, and prompted me to wonder aloud about whether passion is a Good Thing that I / we ought to wish on anyone else.
Beth Kolko -- who is studying how independent people use social networks to provide support for their passions (or at least, professions) outside of an institutional context (during her 18-month sabbatical (in which she is free to pursue her passions)) -- wryly noted that it really doesn't matter whether it is good or bad, that since having a passion for something means you can't not do it, I (we?) don't really have a choice.