For the past six years, I’ve been trying to figure out the nature of my passion: What can I do will bring me joy and fulfillment? Assuming I even had a passion, I imagined it would be like unlocking a dormant super power that was capable of transforming the very nature of my work. I would explode with productivity and carve out a comfortable lifestyle! Follow your bliss, and good fortune will follow.
Until very recently, I was positive that computer games were my passion; I just needed to figure out how to remove the obstacles in my way. After a few years of inaction, I’ve come to the conclusion that, as much as I knew about making games, they’re not my passion. If they were, I would have done something about it long ago, instead of letting other distractions get in the way…
Hm. Maybe the distractions themselves are the key?
My search has been going on for more than for six years, of course. I’ve been pursuing computer game development for most of my adult life, zig-zagging mightily between engineering and art, finally landing in the video game industry professionally. Once I was in, however, I found that either I had changed or the games business wasn’t where I wanted to be after all. Oh crap!
I’ve since stopped to reflect many times why I was looking for passion in the first place. Wasn’t having a steady job with excellent prospects good enough? I could have a nice house, maybe even buy a Camry! Looking back, I can’t explain it either, except I knew that the entire prospect made me miserable. For whatever reason, I was doomed to keep looking.
Fast forward to September 2004, when I started this blog to methodically discover patterns in my interests. I have an obsessive desire to write what I observe and think, so focusing that energy into an extended self-documentation project seemed like a good idea. Writing for me is one of the distractions that seems productive, but it tends to get in the way of immediate action. But since I couldn’t stop doing it anyway, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to see what might happen when channeled. This experiment proved fruitful: after about a year I noticed that there were four overarching themes: design, development, inspiration, and empowerment. And more importantly, I rediscovered the joy of writing for an audience of my friends. The last time I felt this very strongly was probably in the 5th grade, when for creative writing I’d stay up late writing space operas featuring my classmates. They were popular, I recall, if not exactly literature.
The blogging initiative also coincided with another 2005 resolution: meet more people. As a freelancer I was feeling creatively isolated, and my gut told me that finding new creative partners would help resolve my motivational problems. I just had to find the right people.
Between the New Media Group, 9rules, and new friends I’ve made through business contacts, it’s been a tremendous year for expanding my social net. I started the New Media Group out of necessity, and discovered that I enjoyed it. I’m a horrible introvert most of the time, but in the role of seeker, you get to make the rules of contact. That’s easy if you’re comfortable being yourself. For the first time in years, I’m in regular contact with people who get it. They’re not clock-watchers letting the world happen to them; they’re people who want to make their own future. And that kicks ass! I am energized anew, and I love being around them!
Passion Isn’t Necessarily a Vector
Until now, I was hunting for skills that “fit me like a glove”, which I assumed would be my passion. I expected to experience naturally high levels of motivation and fulfillment once I found “it”. In retrospect, this limited the field to skills that had market definitions: New Media, Interactivity, Game Development, and so on…actual professions that could bring in revenue. As I acquired and clarified complementary skills like Project Management, Graphic Design, and Information Architecture, my definition began to broaden. Now I was a “Designer” or “New Media Architect”. Three years ago, I began to position myself more as a developer, choosing coding projects to rebalance my atrophied programming side with the my art side, waiting for the Passion Stick to beat some enlightenment into my skull.
Dum dum de dum deedle deedle dum…
Ok, so nothing was happening. One day I was talking with my good friend Scott, and we chatted about “putting the vibe” out there. The theory is that “the vibe” you put out is what you get back, so if you’re in a cruddy mood all the time, all you’ll get back is crud. Conversely, if you put out a happy vibe, you should get back happy. To put the vibe in terms of business, I want to work with competent, passionate, good-hearted people. Therefore, the vibe I must broadcast is precisely that. And the amazing thing is that it actually works! If you are broadcasting an authentic vibe, that is…people will smell the rat if you aren’t.
Now, when I first started doing this, I thought strictly in terms of business credibility:
“Dave, your skillset is impressive on paper, but there are thousands of people who can legitimately claim to possess the exact same abilities as you. Paper credibility means nothing to the kind of discerning people you want to work with. You must demonstrate and you must write…lasting credibility will come from tangible accomplishment.”
What surprised me was how many of my friends started reading regularly, even ones I hadn’t talked to in years. As a result, I think I’ve gotten closer to a lot of great people I should have kept in touch with more regularity…and now I am! Community is restored! I’ve also gotten to talk to regular people who have written just say hi. It’s a source of good cheer and energy, and it reinforces the vibe I want to maintain. What goes out, comes back!
The Insight of the Passion
What it comes down to—and I’m very surprised, as I’m used to thinking of myself as a technology-hugging introvert:
I like people
I like empowered, passionate, conscientious people.
If I were to admit it out loud, without worrying about people thinking I was a nutcase, I really believe that everyone can be what they want to be. In hindsight, everything I’ve ever done in my life has been firmly anchored by that belief; for one, I wouldn’t have made so many career-altering U-turns if I didn’t believe I could do it myself. By extension, I must believe that other people can too, because I’m just a regular guy. And the reason I believe it in the first place…actually, I don’t know. I just do. Sometimes, passion may just come down to having faith.
My working theory:
For passion to be self-sustaining, it must flow naturally outward, react with the outside world, and then flow back in. It is a self-generating cycle of positive energy.
I’ve talked about cycles before in the context of productivity, and I think it’s applicable to passion as well. Before, I thought that finding my passion would be like discovering an infinite energy source, and this restricted the scope of my search. Finding a regeneration cycle is a much easier task: find something that makes you feel good, find something you do that somehow generates the thing that makes you feel good, plug ’em together and BOOM! You’ve got it. Make it as simple as possible. Maybe this is a kind of engineered passion, sort of like when you can’t afford a real hardware floor and you have to buy that Pergo stuff. Almost as good, in some ways better!
So here’s my cycle:
- I do something that empowers people in some way!
- Happy, empowered people are drawn to me, give me feedback and we hang out!
- I am energized, so I do it again!
- Everything is Awesome!
The cool thing: this decouples actual skills (and by extension professions) from the source of passion. My passion is not defined by craft or talent. It is defined by the roles I love to play; skill and talent are merely tools that help me play my role well.
Alloying Passion with Skill
My mix of skills, I can now see, were all acquired due to some formative inspirational moment followed by the impulse to share. The reason I went into computer engineering? When I was a kid, I was deeply moved by the Infocom series of adventure games, liked shooting space invaders, liked graphics, and thought I needed to build a better graphics computers. Before then, I considered myself a writer, because I got good grades on my essays and it was the thing I was good at. I also liked writing because it helped clarify my own thoughts and ideas, to which other people sometimes responded. Years later, recognizing that being a computer engineer was not the way I wanted to go, I jumped ship and went to art school. Then, armed with complementary masters degrees, I was ready to jump into the serious business of making games…so I thought. The realities of making money from game work, with short development cycles and increasingly homogenized expectations from the people with development dollars, leave little room for ideas. And discussion of ideas don’t help ship that milestone. Ideas, theories, and meaningful dialog are luxuries that slow down the pace of production when you’re on a tight deadline.
To be successful in the game industry, you absolutely have to be passionate about making games above all else. At the time I thought my lack of consuming passion was due to the particular way things are done in larger companies, and under my own banner I would naturally resume my pursuit of game development. But alas…I have to admit I’m not passionate enough about making games. I’m not even passionate about playing them to the end. This was masked for years by my intense interest in the how of making games, from the technology to the psychology behind them.
Fortunately, that interest in the how of things was very transferrable to the early Internet. Bandwidth was precious still, and the game industry / computer engineering education gave me the ability to see computer graphics on an almost molecular level. Translation: I knew how to make graphics really small and still look good. Very handy. I also discovered that I liked working with clients directly to solve their problems, which was totally unexpected. I loved representing myself and my own capabilities to clients, making a personal guarantee, and then delivering something great. Most of the time, anyway :-)
As I gained more experience with clients, I began to see the patterns in interpersonal interactions and became better at anticipating the needs of clients. It became important to me that clients not only felt that things were being taken care of, but that they also felt good about how things were getting done. If I did my job right, then they would feel great, and I would feel great too. On the flip side, the constant desire to maintain high-quality customer relations made me an insufferable asshole when dealing with people on my production team. I also did not react well to bullshit and double-standards, and was incredibly blunt when dealing with them. It’s when I noticed that people tended to not want to work directly with me anymore that I realized what I’d become, and decided that high-quality relations with everyone was the way to go. I’ve been much happier since then.
This pattern—observation of human motivation followed by application of skill—has been constant. I hate not knowing how to do something, or be told that something is not possible. For as long as I can remember I’ve tried to develop the adaptability to do anything that I thought was “in my area of interest”. When I lacked the adaptability or talent, I would perform a flanking manuever and get around the obstacle. About half the time, the obstacle is me, so I spend a lot of time introspecting strategies around myself—The Printable CEO is an artifact of this very process.
The strategic acquisition of know-how and critical insight is my perennial hobby/career. I’m not sure I would call it a passion, but it is a strong part of my personality. What I am passionate about is the application of those skills on the behalf of other passionate, empowered, kind, conscientious, positive, upbeat people who are trying their best to make a little headway in the world. And you know what else? Having finally discovered this, I can graciously accept that I’m not super-passionate about graphic design and game development. Which paradoxically means I can start doing it for real…no more wondering why? why?. It’s now as simple as getting the work done and making it awesome, so I can keep shipping the happy.
I’ll write about that more some day. All I know is at this moment, I am remarkably at peace with myself. I have actually fooled myself into thinking I know what role I want to play for the rest of my life. I hope I’m as lucky tomorrow!
And with that, a Happy Holiday to all! :)