Passion versus Compulsion: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Passion versus Compulsion: A Case of Mistaken Identity

I had another one of those shocking shower insights this morning:

  • I am good at organizing, but I am not an organized person by nature.
  • I am good at noticing details, but I am not detail-oriented by nature.
  • I am good at understanding and defining process, but I do not follow the same process every time.
  • I am knowledgeable about productivity and productivity tools, but I am not a systematically productive person.

Now, I recognize that my definition of “organized” is quite subjective; in relative terms, I may actually be quite organized, detail-oriented, process-driven, and productive compared to other people. However, it’s not how I think of myself. While I have at times molded my behavior to conform to these ideals because it’s what I expect from professionals—these are the credibility markers I look for in competent people—I nevertheless find maintaining such high levels of organization, detail, and process to be very draining. This might explain why I was so “meh” last weekend: I was already tired, and I subconsciously knew I would be drained even further by my “responsible and forward-looking” plans. That’s not much of an incentive.

This realization puts me in a peculiar bind. One would ordinarily assume that the above subjects, which I write about frequently, are the ones I am passionate about. This is not entirely the case, as a good percentage of it is obsessive compulsion. To be passionate is to be moved because you are filled with powerful emotion (in this context, it’s presumably positive emotion). Compulsion is something else; it’s what you have to do because you can’t not do it. This is NOT always a good feeling; satiating a compulsion is more about alleviating pain, not feeling joyful. While I am capable of being an organized, detail-oriented person, it’s not something that brings me joy in itself. In fact, I am quite drained by the effort, which isn’t good for long-term sustainability.

A Catalog of Compulsion

Although following through with these compulsions isn’t necessarily good for me, several of them are bankable. I imagine that a lot of people are in the same situation, and can identify themselves with the double-edged nature of having compulsions that others find useful. Here’s some of mine:

Compulsion 1. I am paralyzed until I collect, analyze and organize information and break it down, so I can identify the patterns and construct a self-consistent model of understanding.

  • The positive: I actually have gotten very good at analyzing information and finding interesting ways of collecting it, so it’s not something I fear. I’ve learned to trust that I will find some kind of answer that will allow me to move forward. *The negative: I can’t actually act until I have gone through enough of the deconstruction process. It takes less time now, but there are certain situations where acting first and thinking later is probably the more effective approach.

Compulsion 2. I constantly seek details that doesn’t fit the pattern, or the meta-detail that explains it all.

  • The positive: I’m a data scanning machine, processing whatever data I need into recognizable patterns. For some reason the interesting data points (the ones that make me ask “why”) seem to jump out. The best possible outcome: stunning clarity and surprising insight.
  • The negative: It can be very exhausting to go through tons and tons of data, leading to massive eyestrain and headaches. It’s a compulsion to keep looking. I also tend to gloss over what appears to be “normal” data, unless there is an unexplained phenomena that causes me to question its validity.

Compulsion 3. I seek the novel or insightful solution over the boring and mundane.

  • The positive: Insight is the gateway to clarity and innovation. That rocks.
  • The negative: Sometimes, the obvious solution is just as good. And, I tend to lose interest in ordinary solutions unless there’s a secondary source of motivation. For example, if I’ve made a personal promise to deliver, or if there’s a game challenge behind it. However, the net process drains energy, albeit more slowly, and is ultimately exhausting. If there is no secondary at all, the energy drain is enormous.

Compulsion 4. I constantly feel the need to document and record my insights, because I don’t trust my memory to be a 100% reliable store. I document so I can remember the hard-won insights, and communicate them to other people who might find them useful.

  • The positive: I write a lot, and blogging has turned this into a catalyst for productive enterprise. It’s also delivered many, many insights that have gotten me to this point. This was completely unplanned.
  • The negative: Creating good documentation is quite time-consuming. Plus, it is a waste of time if no one really reads what you’ve documented.

Compulsion 5. I am compelled to find connections between everything and anything.

  • The positive: Oftentimes there’s quite a novel idea or solution hiding in between nodes of information. Many great opportunities are just waiting to be discovered.
  • The negative: Not everything and anything needs to be connected, and this habit makes me very easy to distract from the task at hand. Just call me tangent boy.

I’m Not Broken, Just Miscategorized

Before people start worrying, THIS IS NOT A CRY FOR HELP. I’m just curious what the ramifications are regarding my quest for identity.

Why am I on this quest, you ask? Um, maybe it has to do with establishing my global microbrand? Or maybe creating a foundation of understanding on which to base my self-esteem? Perhaps it’s because I need to define myself, because I can’t effectively differentiate myself from the crowd without knowing what I am?

I once theorized that “doing what you’re good at” was one path to fulfillment (this is from the “life doesn’t have to be hard” school of thought). There’s a place for that, but it’s not the complete answer. I’m not excited by doing what’s easy for me or what I’m “good” at…there’s something missing.

What about Passion?

Passion is what moves you, a powerful-but-fleeting sensation that sweeps you away with emotion. Here’s a sobering thought: I might be a passion junkie, eagerly looking for my next fix of joy when I should be getting to work like a responsible citizen.

A healthier way of looking at passion is to think of the positive applications to people. The first one that comes to mind is, not surprisingly, Kathy Sierra’s blog Creating Passionate Users, where she illuminates the mechanisms behind creating empowering experiences for people so they can kick ass. I become inexplicably happy whenever I see enabling experience happen in any form; it’s one of the few things that I take as a given about myself, no questions asked.

What makes me super happy, though, is seeing people empower themselves in ways they have may have dreamed of but never dared to reach for. The difference between Kathy Sierra and me is this: I’m really more interested in elevating the level of creative empowerment, and it is this that drives my interest in productivity, design, development, storytelling, and psychology. This probably stems from the frustration of not being able to make what I’ve wanted to make since I was a kid; always isolated, never having the right tools or experience, lacking access to people who knew something about the subjects I was interested in, being trapped in a country where I could not read/write the language, and confused by ambiguous pattern-based educational experiences.

Here’s another way of spinning it: I want to create the community I didn’t have when I was a kid How’s that for self-interest? :-) Secondly, I don’t want anyone to be deprived of the opportunity to find their best way. Bullies, assholes, sheep, nay-sayers, mean people, ignoramuses, and “The Man” are the natural enemies of this process; one must not suffer these people to bring the rest of us down.

This may very well be the mission I am looking for. While it’s not as selfless and grand a mission as I might have wanted, I think it’s pretty very close to the raw truth.

Scoping the Mission

Now that the mission has been redefined, I can apply an Intention / Motivation / Expectation analysis:

Intention: Create a higher level of creative empowerment; create passionate creators; provide insights, materials, and opportunities for people to use and apply to their own life. Make a living doing this. Motivation: Since no one else I know is really this, I have to do it myself. Expectation: I expect that I’ll be happier, more fulfilled, and more productive because I will have a community that provides both the stimuli and creative energy to move forward. I want to be around people like this all the time.

The bases are loaded, so it’s time to follow up with the heaviest-hitting word of them all: WHY?

Well…I don’t really know for sure why. The best I can say is that I suspect I will be happier because I feel good around creative out-of-the-box types. I feel good when I make things that people respond to on an emotional level. I feel good when I write something that makes a lot of sense and helps people understand.

Since this is not quite the home-run of an answer I was hoping for, I’ll go ahead and apply the next string of analysis words. These are more tactical in nature:

Assumptions: My assumption is that offering commodity design services is not going to bring me happiness. I believe that I need to have a strong reason for doing whatever it is I’m doing. While having a mission itself provides additional motivation, I know from my own past that I’ll need an immediate focus to help me power through. The immediate focus can be provided by short-term projects: the books, various productivity forms, idea sharing spaces, and so forth. Constraints: I need to stay focused and make money to support myself, so I am constrained by the amount of time left over. I also need to align myself with projects that are at least tangentially related to the mission of creative empowerment. Fortunately, that is a pretty broad field; there is plenty of skill-related project work that will help sharpen my edge. I’m also constrained by available energy, both in myself and in the energy I can surround myself with. The solution to that is finding the right people, maybe even co-schemers, that keep me excited and energized. Assets: I have plenty of ideas, so I can afford to generate and give away for cheap. It’s a competitive advantage. I know really great and interesting people. I have everything I need to design on a computer, and I know people who can help me break through to the next levels of production. And I can write very very fast. Dependencies: The most critical one is myself, because I need to ensure I’m moving forward on the goal of creating this empowered creativity platform. Finding co-schemers or co-workers is equally important, because you can’t have a community of one :-)

With that, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do, so what’s left is definition and visualization. Then I’d define tangible deliverables and associated metrics of success that tie back to the original intention / motivation / expectations phase. But right now I’m kind of tired, so I’ll sleep on this and see if it makes sense later this week.