Conversations on Passion

"Passion" and "passionate" are horribly overused words here in Silicon Valley. But they get at something real: if you're passionate about something, it means (ideally) that you've taken the time to figure out what you're good at, what you care about, and how to organize your energies around those things. I was flattered to be interviewed on these themes recently by Ryan Bonaparte, author of a great book called Crazy Enough to Try. The writeup is featured today on Ryan's blog.

Here's the text of the interview.

What is passion to you?

If you don't mind, Ryan, I'd like to challenge you a little bit about this concept of "passion." I think I understand what you're trying to get at with the book and these interviews: you want to know what motivates people to do their best, most engaged work. But coming from my perspective as a journalist covering startups, technology, and entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, I wince a little bit every time I hear that word "passion." Over the last few years it's become one of the most abused and overused terms among startup founders, HR people, executive recruiters, and aspiring entrepreneurs. I think it's time to retire the term and find some more honest language.

Too often, when startup people say they're "passionate" about something or that they're looking for employees who "share their passion," it's just another way of saying "obsessed" or "ruthlessly ambitious." It's a kind of code intended to convince onlookers such as investors, partners, and customers that the speaker is so ferociously single-minded about building his company (and it's usually a he) that he will work on it 24/7 and smash through every obstacle. Of course, he only wants to hire people who will be equally devoted, no matter how low the salary or how ridiculous the work hours. 

It's not exactly a cult mindset, because I'm talking about the startup business, not religion, but it's close. The startup-strategy author Steve Blank has said that a startup is a temporary organization formed to discover a scalable business model. In ideal circumstances that description fits. But I've seen too many startups that are closer to being a consensual hallucination fueled by the founder's so-called "passion," which, at bottom, is usually an unreasonable attachment to a business or technology idea that probably won't work (most startups fail), plus an unreasonable expectation that everyone else will go along with him.

I don't mean to dismiss the idea that people should spend their time developing their talents and working toward goals they actually believe in. Knowing what you're good at, what you care about, and what energizes you, and then getting your life organized so that you can pursue those things: that's what I wish people were really talking about when they use the word "passion."

What are you passionate about?

Okay, with the caveat that I wish we could just stop using the words "passion" and "passionate": what I think I'm good at is picking a complex situation or environment, talking with the experts who work in that environment, and reassembling what they tell me into a compelling narrative that will give my readers a useful glimpse into the experts' world. The situations that interest me most are about technology, science, medicine, healthcare, the environment -- in other words, how the world works, how we manipulate it, and what we're doing to it. 

I care about helping general readers get a better grasp on these things, at the level of individual technologies or cultural or social dynamics, so they can be better citizens or smarter consumers. I get energized when I'm able to spend most of my time learning and telling those stories, or helping other people tell those stories; when I feel like the stories themselves are pleasingly crafted; and when I can see that readers picked up something useful.

How did you come to find your passion?

I'd say the major strands in my work -- science and technology as subject matter, handled through journalistic storytelling -- got irreversibly tangled up sometime around my sophomore or junior year of college. I was lucky enough to attend a college, Harvard, that offered a major, history of science, that was a perfect fit for my intellectual interests. (I switched into that major after a couple of ill-conceived years studying physics and astronomy. I wasn't good enough at math to have any business pursuing a career in those areas, and in any case I realized along the way that the scientists' life was too ascetic for me.)

I was always a science geek and a gadget geek: Carl Sagan was my childhood hero, I loved playing with the early electronic games like Merlin and Simon, and I had an after-school job in my dad's office supplies and office equipment business, so I got to tinker with lots of machines. But I didn't really have a notion that I could be a storyteller until I got to college and found myself involved virtually full-time in writing and editing for one of the campus newspapers. 

By the time I found the major history of science, I was already completely immersed in campus journalism. Harvard had a thriving campus-journalism scene, where I was able to learn an enormous amount about writing and publishing from my fellow students. I decided to mix my scholarly and personal interests and my "extracurricular" commitment together and try being a professional science and technology journalist, with a bit of a detour first into graduate studies in history. 

I've found science and technology writing to be an endlessly challenging and rewarding career, where I get a chance to explore important ideas that are changing society rapidly. So it has all worked out pretty well. I gave a mostly autobiographical talk at Xerox PARC last year about all of this -- readers with a little extra time on their hands may want to take a look at the video, which is at www.parc.com/event/1900/stories-about-storytelling.html.

Did your formal education impact your choices in incorporating your passions in your life?

Absolutely, though I'd say some key forces came into play alongside my "formal" education. 

After college I entered a PhD program in the history of technology at MIT, where I was able to go really deep in my academic studies, with the help of some wonderful teachers and mentors. But there was also a great publication based on campus, Technology Review, where I spent a lot of time doing more formal internships and freelance assignments and learned the business of journalism from real professionals. Later on in my career, I got an editing job at Technology Review, so that's been another key connection for me.

So when I think about what I got out of my formal college and graduate education, only part of it has to do with books and classrooms. If you have a strong focus for your work, and you want to develop the skills and connections that will help you cultivate that focus, you need to look beyond the walls of your academic institution and find out what other resources are available in the neighborhood. Who will be willing to show you the ropes, in return for whatever entry-level skills you can provide?

Has your passion changed over time? How so?

No, I'd say it has gotten deeper, and that I've had the good fortune to be able to come at it from different directions. I've written in both scholarly and popular styles. I've spent parts of my career writing just about science, and other parts writing just about technology or the business of technology. Most of the jobs I've worked have been at journalistic publications, but I've also spent some time in government organizations (NASA) and startups (a dot-com-era company called NuvoMedia, which made one of the first portable e-book devices). That kind of variety has given me great opportunities to understand the languages and concerns of different communities of experts and readers.

Do you believe in having just one passion?

I think it helps to have a sharp, central focus for your work. You can spend your whole life trying to become reasonably good at just one skill -- storytelling about science and technology, in my case. If you spread out your time too thin, I think you risk not reaching a rewarding level of competency in anything, unless you're a genius/polymath type like Leonardo or Michelangelo. 

That said, as I indicated earlier, I think there's a fine line between "passion" and "obsession," and I would strongly caution anyone against bending all of their thought toward just one interest or goal. Outside of my work, I'm energized by a lot of things, like spending time in nature, traveling, reading as widely as I can, and learning how to be a better photographer.

Are there are any tips you would give to others to help them in their search for passions?

Pay attention to your inner life. What gets you worked up? Who do you admire or envy the most? What makes you sigh with aesthetic satisfaction or cry with indignant rage? Figure out how your talents line up with those emotional currents. Then find work where, more days than not, you get a chance to apply and hone those talents. That's where you get the fuel to sustain a whole career.

Wade Roush

10 Museum Way, Cambridge, MA, 02141, United States

Science and technology journalist based in San Francisco.