Passion: a secret weapon of the knowledge economy and the thing you can't outsource
Intelligence and specialized skills are par for the course: we have to find ways to pair them with purpose, opinions and drive -for ourselves and our teams
Not everyone has passion. Not everyone is moved emotionally by what they do. And, that’s extremely unfortunate. But fortunately, you are not like everyone else. I doubt anyone who subscribes or clicked on a link to a publication called “Hot Takes” is normal. You’re weird and fun. That’s cool. The weirder you are, likely the longer it is before AI replaces you (insert long enough timeline joke here). Neurodivergence is actually superpower here for those who can tame the extra potent ‘shadow self' that may come with it.
But it’s true even if sounds cliché: winning organizations in every industry are filled with passionate, vocal, active people. They irrationally care about their craft, and the little seemingly unimportant details that define it. It’s a non-trivial percent of their identity. To them, it isn’t even really ‘work’ in the sense that it flows naturally and feels more like creative freedom.
I think that truly passionate people are not understood by much of the world. I don’t watch much TV (anymore, there was a day) and actually haven’t had cable since leaving my parents house nearly 2 decades ago. Instead in free time I write instrumental music a handful of people at the very most care about. It’s not for anyone really, I just enjoy the challenge and puzzle of composition. Instrumental music is a dead art form and I don’t seek to monetize it (in fact I do a terrible job promoting it, and marketing is my profession). The point is it’s 100% intrinsic passion. I tell people this, and it feels like many of them mentally file me in a category of being weird. Why would I want to not actively promote it? Podcasters go hard promoting their episodes 24/7. Someone shared this meme with me the other day and it truly resonated.
Ultimately we ask that question too, but we don’t actually care about the answer - we still will write the same amount even if we only share what we work up the courage to. The very essence of what defines a passion project, it’s not really done for others anyway, it’s done for yourself.
The part that is unfortunate, and altogether sad is many go through life not finding any passions, let alone several (some people are weirdly wired to find passion in anything they do, the rest of us have to work at it). But I’m optimistic on this topic and here’s why: we are at such an incredible turning point in society, and ignoring whatever existential thing is in the news on a given day, I firmly believe the world is changing for the better, specifically due to people with passion. Think about this, a fun story on how the popular site Wikipedia literally woke people from a passive slumber:
From Clay Shirky:
If you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
I believe projects like Wikipedia lifted those who were lacking meaning in their life to a global cause. They are working on something with genuine passion, which has replaced their TV time one could argue is a medium (in excessive use) for people who lack passion. But it doesn’t even have to be a shared distributed project like Wikipedia. It can be anything, and you can discover and nurture passion in all aspects of life. Think of what could be unlocked if we move even a few basis points of the population to be passionate, and therefore motivated.
To those who love their jobs: purpose and passion already trump profit as a motivator to produce great work (see all the Wikipedia editors volunteering time above, that ‘work’ is no less hard than anything you or I do for an employer and a paycheck). This is something I’ve been conscious of long before I started working for others. I noted this while in university – grades never motivated me nearly as much as if I viewed the subject matter as purposeful and the professor as passionate.
It’s a common theme in sociology texts, but still something that many still fail to grasp (or believe) even though there’s data behind it. This is either because it goes against what they were taught, or are completely ingrained in the idea of money as central to the reason why we work (our increasingly hyper-capitalist world actually gets quite a bit wrong). It’s all they have ever seen used as a motivator, and so it’s difficult for them to imagine other things being used as motivation. But to truly valuable professionals in any industry, money as a motivator pales in comparison to passion and purpose. Simply put, money alone does not attract or maintain great talent. If money was all that mattered, I would have stayed at Google forever instead of leaving after 8 years, as I’d reached a point I felt I learned all I could from such a firm (they are an amazing company by the way, I would even consider going back one day and do recommend working there at some point if you’re able, it just became not right for me at that moment in time). Some things matter more for us weird people than money and stability (and I still believe weird is more fun).
The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) produced a great video that expresses this very notion and shows some proof points in an easy to consume format. It makes a thoughtful argument that money is not central to motivating or attracting the best teams (embed follows).
So, are you motivating your team by money or are you encouraging and nurturing their passions? The best use of money as a motivator is to take people’s worry about it off the table. After that, of course ensure your team members are of course continually rewarded appropriately and kept happy financially. But this should be the easy part.
Harder, are you giving them purpose or simply a greater workload for the sake of increasing your revenue, but not providing meaning?
Is your company’s whole purpose merely to increase revenue or are you actually trying to change something? Do employees even know? Are they somehow invested and have skin in the game?
The information economy linchpins – especially within marketing/PR – are the most creative, agile and motivated individuals. Not those driven purely by profits. Find a way to attract and maintain those folk or you’ll continue to find yourself behind competitors.
In the end, money could be your undoing if your creative thinking for rallying your employees long term (or even day to day) can’t think beyond money. You can’t innovate with purely profit-driven teams.
Important to also understand: difference between excitement vs passion
New blogs, new social networks, new interests, new projects, new businesses, new forms of marketing – these are all things that are easy to get excited about.But excitement is unsustainable and not a reason to get involved in things the way passion is. Developing passion is not instant and takes true time and dedication that an overwhelming majority will simply not put the effort into.
Honest, unrelenting passion is a rarity in our society and I have witnessed it in very few individuals. But in those individuals it is absolutely unmistakable, you can literally feel it and it is powerful simply being around them.
Here's how I believe this differs from mere excitement:
Excitement is novelty, passion is sustainable
Excitement is how you feel when starting something brand new, passion is pouring your soul into it for years
Excitement is starting a new business with the goal of making money, passion is starting a business because you have a vision for your industry
Excitement is fleeting, passion is timeless, can’t be shaken from you and is what you live for
Excitement is the feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster or a night in the city, passion is the love you have of art, of writing, of your partner
Excitement is common, true passion is rare
Excitement is a shallow connection, passion runs deep
Excitement can be visualized in peaks and valleys, passion can be visualized as an infinite plateau
Society conjures excitement at every corner, passion is a precious treasure
Excitement can be synthesized, passion is impossible to artificially reproduce
Excitement can drive you to illogical action, passion never steers you the wrong direction
Excitement is instant, passion is earned
Excitement is contagious, passion is misunderstood
Excitement is at times a deterrent, passion is an enabler
Excitement is plastic, passion is real
Excitement is a function of the reptilian brain, passion lives in the neocortex
Excited people tire easily, passionate people can’t stop
The trick is, convert the (positive) thoughts that get you excited about things into a more sustainable passion that sticks with you.
Good brands stir excitement, great brands inspire passion (what most online marketing lacks)
In the frenzy of marketers drowning the web in their ultra-proofed and overly refined messages, there is something that is severely lacking: passion. And, passion is the largest driver motivating people to produce, share and remix content online.
What motivates a popular food blogger to share her recipes with the world every day? What motivates a tech reviewer to write about the latest gadget? What inspires a web nerd to talk about the latest startup or e-commerce site? Simple – it is pure and raw passion for the subject matter.
If your marketing, your product, newsletter or your brand lack passion, you will never break through the noise online. It doesn’t matter how proofed your communications are, the people using the web with greatest frequency are extremely smart and will see through the fluff, or ignore it altogether (although creativity and quality do matter, too).
If the web is great at doing one thing it is this: ignoring you. Let’s be honest here too – most messages put out on the web by marketers and businesses are completely ignored.
Taking mass-media tactics online is destined for failure
Here is how I see it. Yes, you can create a neat banner people might click, or an amazing video that gets a million views (if you’re lucky). But what you are achieving here is 1-off results. In other words, you are not building any kind of lasting relationship with people, you’re merely holding their attention for a few seconds which might lead to an interaction later on.
Instead of this, what if you took the time and effort to prove your passion to the world in a creative way. Create an interaction first, and start a relationship with people up front in a manner which demonstrates your passion beyond any of your competitors.
This not only gets you noticed, but also lays the groundwork for deeper, more meaningful, and continued interactions. In time, this forges relationships with people who not only will talk about you but will want to share what you’re doing with others because it’s just that remarkable.
The active, hyper-connected web users are an intellectual, passionate group. These people, the ones you’re dying to get talking about you and sharing your product/business/blog/music with the world only want to connect with people/ideas/products that share their passion and build meaningful, fulfilling and creative connections.
The creators, businesses and brands that share honest passion with the world (you can’t fake this, by the way) while forging deep, personal connections will be the long term winners, not the ones who treat the web like an impersonal, dispassionate mass-market.
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great post adam :)
Hey Adam, it's been awhile since I've read one of your posts but you've still got it! This post holds true for so many things.