Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"A Passionate Drama for the Ages"



Passion: it's a good thing.  I, for example, am passionate about caring for my family, about living out my faith, and about building great software products (that last one's even on my resume, so it has to be true).  I also really enjoy biking, hiking, writing, reading, and, sometimes, just sitting in the dark by myself, but I wouldn't say that I'm passionate about those things.

Passion is food and light, fuel and fire.  It sustains us, it drives us, it consumes us.  It's the difference between "YEAH!" and "meh...."  If you're passionate enough about something, we're told, then you can do anything, be anything, achieve anything.  It's like a one-way ticket to the stars, with an unlimited supply of rocket fuel.

In my years (OK, decades) working with startups, I've heard the same phrase in almost every company pitch: "We're passionate about waste management/online book sales/mobile crowdsourced snipe hunting, so there's no way we can fail!"  In the early years, I thought, "Exactly!  That's what it takes to make this sort of dream a reality!"  Now, I think, "Well, maybe.  What else have you got?"

What I've learned over the years is that passion by itself isn't enough.  You also need focus, you need skills, and you need help.  I can jump up and down all day, shouting, "I'm passionate about restoring classic Maseratis!!!" but that's not going to rebuild an Italian carburetor.  Nor does my passion guarantee my success if I actually open the hood and start poking around.  If I don't know what I'm doing, then blindly following my passion is more likely to get me hurt than to help me accomplish anything useful.  If I can focus that energy over time, though, then I can probably gain the skills and the help I need. Focused passion becomes vision, and vision inspires others to make your passion their own.

Passion is like a fire hose: if you focus it and direct it toward a goal, then you can do a lot of good.  If you just let go of it and let it spray all over the place, then you'll make a mess and probably hurt someone in the process.

So, passion plus focus equals success.  What does passion without focus lead to?

Drama.

Drama is the dark side of the passion coin.  It's what you get when you let your passion run unchecked, when you make the feeling more important than the outcome.  It's the mess you make when you measure people based on their "commitment" instead of their output.  It's why so many personal and business relationships don't just fall apart, they explode in a conflagration of misery, lawsuits, and recriminations.  Passion was why I joined several startups.  Drama was why I left.

Every teenager knows this, because they have all kinds of passion and nowhere to put it.  What are your teenage years other than a chance to "find yourself," to take all those things (and people) that you're interested in and decide whether or not you want to spend your life pursuing them?  What is a first date other than an experiment in focused passion, and what is a first fight if not the logical dramatic conclusion of that experiment?  For teens, life is hyperbolic.  Everything is "the best thing in the world" or "the worst thing ever," sometimes in the same day.  That song you couldn't stop playing yesterday is so overplayed today, and the person you were planning to spend eternity with last week is a stuck-up jerk this week.  Teens are full of passion and bursting with drama, usually more than one house can contain.

This is a natural part of growing up, but the problem is that some people never leave those teenage tendencies behind.  Instead of finding a balance between passion and drama, they let go of the firehose and look for ways to turn up the water.  "More passion!" they cry, but more drama results.  Instead of pointing them toward a solution, their passion creates more problems, to which they respond with more passionate demonstrations, which lead to more drama.  Eventually, unfocused passion always turns inward, and instead of inspiring others to join you, it isolates and alienates.

I once worked for someone I'll call "Jack," who had more energy than any three other people combined.  He was brilliant, insightful, and he rarely slept more than a few hours a night.  The rest of us were convinced that he was also clinically insane.  But boy, was he passionate.  He could see what was coming in software over the next few years and he knew what products people would want.  He just couldn't build them, because when it came time to do the necessary work he got bored and moved on.  He left a trail of half-built and broken product behind him, each of which would make someone else rich in a few years.

Or as one of his long-time colleagues put it, "Jack's successfully predicted every technology trend for the last ten years, and has f***ed up every one."

Jack had passion, but he lacked focus.  He had energy to spare, but he wasted most if it jumping from place to place, idea to idea, team to team.  He drew people in with his energy, then he drove them away with his drama.  When projects failed, he told us we "lacked commitment" because we slept more than 3 hours a night.  When people questioned his ideas, he yelled.  When no one else was around, he called them at home to tell them that they were the reason that the company was struggling.  Needless to say, we had a lot of turnover at our little company.  Drama comes with a high recruiting budget.

I worked for another company who said, "We want to do one thing and do it better than anyone else." One of the founders of that company owns half an island now, and he's pursuing other passions.  They had focus.

So what's ruling your life: passion or drama?  Are you focused on the goal or worrying about the obstacles?  Are you drawing people into your vision or telling them that they couldn't possibly understand it?  Do you spend your days drawing new and better ideas out of the people around you or telling them why yours is the only one that will work?

Passion finds the positive.  Drama obsesses about the negative.
Passion includes.  Drama alienates.
Passion inspires.  Drama tires.
Focused passion created the automobile, the electric light, and the computer.  Drama created the anti-anxiety pharmaceutical industry.

Focus your passion.  Save the drama for the stage.