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