Monday, July 6, 2009

Passion in Jobs

Roughly a year ago, I started an essay called Passion vs. Engagement. The piece is unfinished, but so are my thoughts on the matter; I'm still thinking about this stuff, and how I want to present it... at least, how to present it in a formal, professional tone. But this blog is neither formal nor professional; it is a playground for thinking out-loud.


As my line of work is software development (aka "programming" aka "coding"), I find myself reading Joel Spolsky's blog from time to time. Though I have no desire to move to New York, the work environment for his programmers is envious: individual offices, comfortable/ergonomic work spaces, modern tools and equipment, etc. He's also hinted to the fact that pay at his company is very competitive (although, personally, I'd take a cut in pay to actually have a quiet, distraction-free environment).

However, he eludes to passion for programming as effectively being a hiring criterion. I don't think Joel is any different from virtually every recruiter, HR staffer, or hiring manager (in any field) when he says he wants passionate employees. Who doesn't?

But my question is, what exactly is passion? Joel gives some hints to what he means by passion: evidence of programming-related pursuits outside of work. Although I genuinely love programming, I have to admit: after 11 hours of it, each and every day, I have no desire to write any code outside of work. I have too many other hobbies that are already on the brink of attention starvation. Does that mean I'm not passionate?

I can think of a few examples where I've witnessed true passion:
  1. My friend and boss where I'm currently employed. Relentless 11--12 hour days, with practically no break in focus. While I'm in the same boat, after three years, I already know this isn't something I can sustain for the long haul. But my boss has been working like this for well over a decade; my friend is approaching a decade of the same. It's neither an exaggeration nor an unfair statement to say that both would work even more hours if it weren't for the wife and kids.
  2. My wife used to work for a non-profit organization. Due to matters very close to her heart, this was a cause for which she was definitely passionate. When she worked for this company, she worked as many or more hours than I do; and they were erratic hours at that (nights, weekends, etc). Being a non-profit, her pay was substantially below her effort.
  3. There are at least a couple open-source developers whose lives I've researched a bit. These people develop software for their employer by day, and write just as much open-source code by night.
In all cases, the common trait is a singular pursuit in a given field.

But for me, I simply have too many interests to devote myself entirely to one.

I think (or at least I'd like to think) that most people are more like me---we willingly fall into the "work-to-live" camp (as opposed to the "live-to-work" one). That is, I'd wager that the majority of people, even the ones who love their jobs, want to have time to do other things besides work.

In other words, if my guess is correct, most people aren't passionate about their work.

And maybe that's just it: the majority of employers aren't looking for "most people"; they want the best (who are, by definition, a minority). But the main idea behind my essay (and this blog post) is that I believe there exists a happy medium between passionate and mediocre. I call it being engaged; it's Passionate, Jr., but still mutually beneficial to employer and employee. Engagement has most of the attributes of passion, but stops short of being a singular life focus.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are being too critical of the definition of passion; or perhaps you are being too critical of what you think an employer's definition of passion may be. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that most industries (unlike the finance/nonprofit world) expect your work for them to be a product of passion, but not a commitment that their work be the ONLY passion in your life.

    Plenty of companies try to educate their employees on work-life balance, while trying to provide a work environment that values the same. If these companies are diminishing and your philosophy of passion in the workplace is becoming more prevalent, I have to say that no wonder long-term commitment to a workplace is diminishing as well. However, I refuse to believe that a promising and advancing career with realistic passion is not an option.

    I think, in your situation, you are surrounded by people who have willingly chosen to make their contribution to the world through sole focus on their work. In turn, your focus and passion by comparison seems inadequate. Perhaps it IS inadequate for advancement in your current situation, but it very well may exceed the level of passion and commitment others express in a different industry/company.

    Keep your chin up. I share your belief in having a variety of interests which spark your passion and inspire you in life. I strongly believe a well-rounded employee with varied interests is intrinsically more valuable than an employee with tunnel vision. Who wants to be a one-trick pony? And whatever happened to "variety is the spice of life"?