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.