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Why Be Passionate?

Malcolm Gladwell - Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Malcolmgladwell.jpg
“Absent love for your field, you can’t be a genius. You can’t.”– Malcolm Gladwell

Scott Hanselman posted this quote on the Internet last week and it really resonated with me. It is no secret that I work in an industry full of “geniuses” and we were all most likely the smartest kids in our schools and among our relatives. Some of us (full disclosure: I can definitely be guilty here) still like to occasionally hold a somewhat lofty view of ourselves among the ranks of “the geniuses”.

Mr. Gladwell has written some very good books about ideas, intuition, and observation. I generally enjoy his writing and here I believe he is right on. I keep coming into contact more and more with developers who are not passionate about what they do. By not being passionate, they are doing their employers and themselves a disservice by not maxing out their genius potential. There are several reasons for this lack of passion – I’d like to focus on two.

The first group to consider may have at one time been passionate developers, but have since burned out. I know for a fact that this is fairly common and have come close to burnout a few times myself. Preventing burnout is a broad topic for perhaps another post, but it is beyond our scope here. I don’t think that I’m breaking new ground to suppose that burnt-out developers aren’t blazing the genius trail.

Our second group is made up of those developers who only do this because they were pressed into service at their jobs or they entered this profession because it pays well. If these people suddenly became wealthy, coding is not how they would spend their time. What that means is they are likely also not spending their free time on this craft.

I’m not claiming that individuals in either group are bad people. They are not. At the same time, however, I believe that individuals who don’t love their field will never attain guru/ninja/genius status. You cannot just put in your 8 hours and expect to be on that “next level”. This goes for lawyers, physicists, and therapists, too. If you aren’t putting in your own time reading journals, blogs, attending seminars, or just “thinking the big thoughts”, you aren’t going to grow.

The bright side is that this love can be cultivated. Much like marital love, you can rekindle your love for your craft. The same principles even apply. A common recommendation in marriage counseling is that you really get to know your spouse. Find out things about who they are and who they’ve become that you didn’t know. Fall in love all over again.

In development, that means finding out different things about programming that you didn’t know before. For instance, if you’ve only ever done middle tier work, learn the UI. If you’ve only programmed application code, learn the database. If you’ve only ever worked the Microsoft stack, give Open Source technologies a try. Make the field new, exciting, and alive again.

Even if you are someone for whom life or finances has guided toward technology, you also have hope. Much like individuals in arranged marriages can “learn to love” or “grow to love” their spouses, you can learn to love your profession. Like the last group, branch out and find a niche you are passionate about. Computer science is a very broad profession. You may find you love writing compilers, embedded systems, device drivers, mobile applications, web, rich media, etc. However, if you only ever log your hours and go home, you’ll never know what is beyond your 9 to 5.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but I truly felt compelled to write when I read that quote. Remember the old adage that when you point one finger, you have the rest of them pointing back at you. I write as much for my current and future self as I do for my readership. While I am “on fire” and “in love” with programming now, the natural ebb and flow of life may take that away from me. When it does, my natural desire to compete and be great are going to remind me of this post and I will have to heed my own advice and find something new that excites me.

I hope you have something that excites you, too.

One Comment

Phil Shearer  on August 10th, 2010

The quote by Malcolm Gladwell could not be more accurate. I meandered through a few different fields as I progressed through my career. The only time I was truly happy was when I was working some sort of retail. This in itself is a bit of a curse. Retail (field level) is a notoriously low paying job. Therein lies my dilemma. Should I be happy with what I am doing and barely pay the bills or look for a more lucrative area that will afford a better lifestyle.
There never was a choice for me. When I was very young (5 or 6) I lived on the second floor of a farmhouse. On this farm there was a spring house that had a sort of counter and shelves. I made my mother open all of our food at the bottom. That would allow me to display the food on the shelves and have it look like a real store.
I never really gave this much thought later in life until, well into my career, my mother reminded me of that childhood obsession and said that I seemed to be born to the retail life.
There is something inherently satisfying in preparing a store for the day’s business. The biggest driving factor, however, is satisfying as many people as possible each day. How creative can I be in solving a perceived wrong?
At a company meeting (approx 180 stores) I was asked to address the assembly on customer service. This came as a surprise to me as I had no advance notice that I would be speaking. I spoke for about 20 minutes before I realized that I had been at the podium for that long. I apologized to the other store managers and corporate people for rambling on so long but was assured by the company president that my passion for satisfying people was very evident and hopefully would be contagious. The reason they wanted me to speak extemporaneously was that they felt that my passion for service would not be diluted by a prepared, written and rewritten speech watered down by careful choice of word and phrase.
I have enjoyed every retail job I have held (with the exception of the last one for a company that shall remain nameless) and actually looked forward to going to work every day.
If you don’t love your job, or at least like it a lot, you will not achieve great success. Somewhere out there is a field for every working person. It may take a bit of work to find it, but you must make the effort. Very few worthwhile things just fall into your life. Let me close this with another quote.
At the Football Hall of Fame induction this year Russ Grimm made this statement: “There is no better feeling than moving a man from point A to point B against his will.” Passion? You bet! Can you find yours?

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