A Quiet Reflection on Failure, Part III

A Quiet Reflection on Failure, Part III

Welcome to Part III! Here’s the gist of the summary of Parts I and II:

I have tried for 7 years to create a blog-centered creative life. The reason I chose “blog-centered” was because it was the most satisfying work I had done, writing for myself and getting positive responses from the world for being myself. However, I have not been able to make it work. I acknowledged in the past two posts that I have “failed”, though I have gained important insights and come up with a few good tricks. Discipline and a re-commitment to mastery may be the keys…

I thought that this post would be about planning the new direction; that would been the expected Dave Seah Step 3. However, I’ve re-discovered the power of letting words sit while doing the “715AM 15-minute” daily ritual; reviewing the work I’ve done a day later lets the raw ideas pickle ferment into something tastier as new ideas settle into the brine.

One new idea is about the nature of passion itself. Several people both on-line and off have recommended looking at Cal Newport’s recent book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. His central premise is that the cliched slogan “follow your passion” is terrible advice and that there are alternatives. While I didn’t find the Kindle sample of his book compelling enough to buy it, this did get me thinking about passion itself. What exactly are we arguing about when we’re talking about passion? Newport’s argument is “following simplistic advice like ‘follow your passion’ is bad”, and he follows up with four good pieces of advice based on anecdotal research. However, I think the more nuanced argument—I haven’t read the book, so perhaps he addresses this—is that following any advice is bad if you don’t know how it works. Do I know how passion works? Or what following it really means? On reflection: I don’t really know for sure.

So, like a pink-skinned freshman, I dutifully looked it up:

Passion (Noun) (1) Strong and barely controllable emotion. (2) A state or outburst of such emotion.

I was surprised…that’s it??? I expected something much more epic. When we talk of “finding our passion”, we use hushed tones reserved for the spiritual journey, using terms like “life-changing” and “destiny”. It’s appealing, I think, because we imagine ourselves as the heroes in our own quest, seeking fortune and glory while accruing peace and wisdom along the way. I may have been reading way too much into it, and I didn’t question it because the idea of finding a passion IS hugely attractive. Why wouldn’t you look for it?

Anyway, “following your passion”, if I am to take it literally, means “following your strong, barely-controllable emotion”. Sort of like dousing, as the following usually goes. More importantly, I do have strong emotions and reactions. Just the other day I was mad as hell at Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, for its imbalance of cinematic beauty and horrible dialogue. I get upset when I see someone using an ugly button widget, and don’t get me started on gradient fills. I am enraged when I see someone get put down, disparaged, or otherwise marginalized in service of a hidden agenda. These are passions. From the handful of Cal Newport’s blog posts I’ve read, I would hazard that his passion is finding a rational, well-defined path to success and satisfaction.

But I digress. Unpacking “following one’s passion” could be construed to mean “using strong emotional reaction as an instrument to find the area where you might have these natural advantages”, as listed below:

  • If you have a strong emotional reaction to something, you care. And caring is an important part of creating superlative art and engineering. People who don’t care about what they do can be efficient and productive, but it is unlikely that they will produce anything memorable. This is the difference between a job and a calling. I’m the offspring of a giant missionary family, so I’m admittedly pre-disposed to finding a calling because I’ve grown up with people who live it. It’s also a tremendous amount of thankless work, which is why I’m not keen on doing it.
  • If you have a strong emotional reaction to something, and are compelled to do something about it, that is free starter energy. If you can combine that free energy productively with competence, you’re one or two giant steps ahead of the people who don’t have it. Not only do you know what to do, but you have the ability and the initiative to make something happen.
  • If you have a strong emotional reaction to something, you probably are not alone in having it. If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not alone in our weirdness, and that it’s possible to find each other. That’s a reassuring, heartwarming thought. In terms of cold hard opportunity, it means you may have a market waiting to be developed.

These three things, which I probably have absorbed from Kathy Sierra’s talks, are the motive, means, and opportunity for the crime of following one’s passion. I’m guilty, and I have no regrets.

Dave’s Passion, Redux

If I accept the above premise, I can immediately map out what I know I feel strongly about:

  • I am jazzed by great information, insights, instruction (and the terrible state of what’s available)
  • I am moved by meaningful, truthful, transparent communication (and the extreme difficulty of realizing it)
  • I am inspired and enthralled by elegant, aesthetic, novel, world-beating design and engineering (and the challenge of achieving it)
  • I am empathetic toward the search for personal voice and one’s role in the world (and dealing with the fear of growing into it)
  • I am drawn to the quest for self-empowerment, self-sufficiency, and creative mastery (and the techniques that help)
  • I am militant about the practice of the Hacker Ethic, free sharing of information, and building of community (and making a living from it)

I wouldn’t have thought them as “passions” before, because they are usually described as “a passion for [insert name of craft or activity]”. Simplifying it further, I think I could describe it as a passion to explore and share my own ideas and experiences, practicing (as my business card optimistically says) explore, learn, build, share.

Now, I originally started writing this series of posts because I felt, after 7 years of plugging away, that I had failed to create a self-sustaining creative bloggy lifestyle. I can see now that I have at least LIVED the lifestyle, inadvertently living out my “passion”. That’s great, I guess. What I have failed to address is the achievement part. This is where I think my journey intersects with Cal Newport’s writings on the merits of taking an actual career path; both are related to achievement, though my journey has been different. It’s been a meandering path, and I could easily cast it as wasted time, but I’m inspired by what my high school buddy (and former collaborator) Mark says on his twitter bio: Is it risky? Sure! Is it wise? probably not, unless it works; then it’s brilliant.

Connecting the Dots

Let me again step back to my original question/conclusion again: I’d failed, wah! But at WHAT did I fail?

The reason I wanted to have a creative, blog-driven lifestyle was because I liked sharing what I was doing and thinking. I liked posting design work and getting feedback from people who enjoyed it. While I wasn’t making money from it, I liked feeling that I was contributing, in my own way, to improvements in people’s work routines. I also liked being recognized for my work and my words, preferring this to being part of another company. However, for complete freedom I need money and resources, more than to just scrape by. I also have been frustrated by my lack of achievement in other areas, like software, game development, and art.

Last week I had the good fortune of stumbling upon Jordan Mechner’s The Making of Prince of Persia journals, in which he designed and developed the successor to his popular Karateka game as a 20-something Yale graduate back in 1985. He was one of the original masters of the Apple II personal computer during the Golden Age of computer gaming, and I remember being mesmerized by the idea of creating and authoring a game all by myself. I pursued this from high school (starting in 1982) through two masters degrees and a stint in the professional video game industry, ending in 1998 when I burned out. During this entire time, I pursued team, career, and marketable skills before I my heart wasn’t in it anymore; it had changed from the auteur-driven environment of the 80s into a big high-risk, high-stress business. From 1998 to 2003, I wondered what to do with myself, doing corporate interactive design as a freelancer, before discovering blogging in 2004 as a way to relaunch some kind of credible web presence. Reading The Making of Prince of Persia reminded me of the old desire to be someone as well-rounded and capable as Jordan Mechner. I realized that while my interest in computer gaming had waned, the desire to be author and king of my own epic projects is still with me. It is here that I am feeling frustration, and have for a looong time. I still am clinging to the romantic notion that I can do it all myself. There is a very strong desire in me to be as independent as possible, and it kills me that I am not.

I don’t think the desire for money and resources is incompatible with this feeling. In fact, they n work hand-in-hand, if I am smart about it and committed to doing the work. I don’t think I had faith in myself, and I thought I needed a team. What I need is the company of creative, smart, competent people to challenge my assumptions and push me to do better. What I need is to remind myself every day of what I am doing, to pick some big targets and chip away at them with a continuous wave of daily effort. My past mistake was to try to grow as BIG as the target before taking it on, breathing radioactive fire on the challenge kaiju-style, until it melted into compliance before my triumphant feet. Apparently, the biggest target I could take on by myself was Adobe Illustrator and WordPress; this is where I could direct my impulsive blasts of energy productively and have something to show for it. The lessons of recent days, though, have shown me that I now have the ability to work in smaller doses; it’s the daily continuity that will help me focus them with surgical adeptness.

So let me break the original question/conclusion down just one more time: what did I fail at when I set about establishing the blog-driven, creatively passionate life? There are four criteria that come to mind:

  • Did I blog about what I was passionate about? YES, apparently so.
  • Did I achieve recognition? SORT OF…some people know me for the design work and blogging.
  • Did I achieve financial independence? NO…I’m poor!
  • Did I complete big projects that personify my values? NO…I’ve been spinning my wheels.

Those last two are the ones that need work. I’ve at least started to work on financial independence by learning how to make and sell my so-called “functional stationery” on Amazon, so this is something I can keep expanding as I develop the discipline habit around growing the business. As for the big projects, that’s something new. While I’ve always had them in the back of my mind, I’ve never really moved forward on them seriously because I thought I needed a team. Now, I see them as the opportunity to refine my skills and develop mastery in harmony with values, which give my work meaning.

I think that is what Part IV will be about.

Articles in the "Quiet Reflection on Failure" Series

I wrote these articles in 2012 after spending 7 years pursuing my 'Groundhog Day Resolutions' goals, and not feeling that I'd gotten very much done. What followed was a deep dive into motivation that ended up clarifying quite a lot!

  • Part 1, in which I ask myself what I've been up to for 7 years.
  • Part 2, in which I probe the nature of what I'm thinking of as "failure" to gain some sense of closure before moving on.
  • Summary of Part 1 & 2, a distillation of the main points in parts 1 and 2.
  • Part 3, in which I probe some possible new directions.
  • Part 4 Conclusion


  1. Lynn O'Connor 12 years ago

    There is something right about “following your passion” despite what nay sayers might suggest. I teach third year doctoral students in clinical psychology, and while some of them already know what they want to be the focus of their dissertation research when they begin our third year seminar, others don’t, have not made that decision. I tell them “pick a topic that relates to your “secret obsessions,” something that hits you personally, because doing the literature review –no matter what the topic– is so boring. Reading those horrible, dry, journal articles (and you have to read all of them when you are writing a doctoral dissertation) is hideous, boring boring boring. However, if it is about a topic that you are really interested in, that is close to home, it’s possible to read them despite how tedious the task might be.” That’s what I advise, and I think it’s good advice. It’s more tolerable when they’re reading all the journal articles related to a topic close to home. It’s still awful, reading journal articles written in that awful dry scientific prose, but it’s do-able, tolerable when the topic is close to hom, of really great interest.

    Doesn’t the same thing apply to the kind of work that you do? By being a blogger, a productivity guru/blogger/creator, you are doing work that may be difficult at times, even boring (for you), but at least you can do it, and in doing it, you grab the attention of people who find you fascinating, who simply love what you create, and what you write. I personally happen to love your ‘products” and that includes your description of feeling like a failure. I can (and do) use your “forms” and I identify with your sometimes dismal feelings. As a scientist (not hooked up to big money drug companies), studying altruistic emotions, and recently studying Tibetan Buddhism and other contemplative practices –and as a writer (of articles, book chapters, and currently my Psychology Today blog “Our Empathic Nature” etc., I don’t make much money. I teach doctoral students, a job that is hardly lucrative, and I keep my private practice small and easy to manage. If I focused on building my practice I could definitely make more money, but then I would have less time to do research and I’d have less available energy to put into my writing. Doing work that we love seems most important, although it is still “work” and sometimes it too is tedious. But hey, I’ve been following you for years now, and therefore I would hardly call you a failure. There are very few bloggers that I follow, very few people whose thinking continues to capture me. You, Rachel Maddow, David Allen, some science writers (like Mirsky and Horgan from Scientific American) who summarize current research, a few really smart psychologists, Scott Lilienfeld, Bruce Rind, Richard McNally, Richie Davidson, John Kihlstrom and a few others–its a very short list and you are on it. So for some of us anyway, you are definitely not a failure.

    Lets figure out how to make more money. You’ve got a group around you, lets think collectively about how to turn what we have into a decent income. I don’t know about “following one’s passion” but I’m very sure it’s important to do work we love. And I’m also sure you can’t possibly be a failure.

  2. Heidi 12 years ago

    Just stumbled upon your site. I am really impressed by your honesty, your completely candid nature, and your writing skills. So much of what you read on the web is lacking in substance and, often, grammar. This is an important conversation.

    I know lots of people struggling to do their passion. I’m one of them. I’m a puppeteer/writer/designer/puppet builder. One thing I’ve noticed over time is that there is a lack of infrastructure to support entrepreneurs who are taking a road less travleed. There are things happening — changes! — in the world that I think will be making this easier. Co-working is a biggie, and I think that there are other changes happening, too, as more and more people become self-employed.

    I will echo the reader above that it is vital to do work that resonates with who you are. The income issue is a big deal. I don’t dispute that. I agree 100%. I know so many artists who do not do their art due to economic constraints and not having access to tools, studio space, and business know-how. But I also know people in jobs that they despise just so they have benefits, and I know people with dreams that would make the world a better place if they were actualized.

    I will enjoy following this conversations!

  3. Laura 12 years ago

    I just stumbled upon your blog today and it’s coming at a perfect time. I’m a graduate art student trying to puzzle through how my passions + my work = art.

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Lynn writes

    By being a blogger, a productivity guru/blogger/creator, you are doing work that may be difficult at times, even boring (for you), but at least you can do it, and in doing it, you grab the attention of people who find you fascinating, who simply love what you create, and what you write. […] So for some of us anyway, you are definitely not a failure.

    Thank you for that reminder and affirmation, Lynn. I don’t regard failure as a permanent state, though it can be depressing. In this case I found it good for its ok, this didn’t work. let’s fix this and plot anew! kick in the pants. Yeah!

    Anyway, I’ve been mulling and rewriting and distilling to put together a more concise, actionable plan based on passion + practical goals. Still haven’t read Newport’s book, though I am not in the mood to read another book before starting off again!

    Heidi: A puppeteer/writer/designer/builder??? Awesomeness! That’s a great observation, that there is a “lack of infrastructure to support entrepreneurs who are taking a road less-traveled”. And I do see that there’s a change happening too. I’ve tried the co-working and the jellies, online collaboration, etc, and the problem I’ve had with them is that my specific vision is mine alone. So what I think I need is more resources that help me (1) really see my progress and (2) guide me through the unfamiliar parts of creating my specific vision, such as business. The most important realization I’m having from this article series is that there was a hidden third directive, which entrepreneurs probably already know (this is a new thought and rough, so bear with me):

    (3) Making your specific vision into a reality is a form of mastery that no one can teach you in whole. It is up to you to assemble it yourself, and validate that it works.

    That’s my specific third directive; as a builder, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is deeply part of you already. For me, it’s a link that I’m just beginning to understand.

  5. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Laura: How’s the passion search going?

  6. James 12 years ago

    I’ve been reading your blog for years, and have enjoyed it immensely. As much as I understand your premise, I wouldn’t call what you’ve done failure, just unfinished. As Thomas Edison once said when discussing all of the light bulb prototypes that didn’t succeed, “I haven’t failed. I’ve successfully found 3000 theories that didn’t work”.

    You too haven’t failed. And upon honest reflection (which most people avoid like the plague) you’ve found that new routes need to be taken to reach less nebulous goals. Good job and well done. Are you there yet? No. But you have a better idea of where you want to be and that’s not failure, that’s progress.

    As a former Marine Sniper, I can tell you that you’ll never hit a target that isn’t defined. I can also state with absolute authority, that hitting the target isn’t a natural ability, but a process of getting better at the small things; understanding that those small things add up to huge results. When you miss the target, adjust your sights and /or your process and fire again. Either way, you’ve got to take the shot.

    Be blessed and enjoy the road, whether you’re walking or running.