On passion and luck

Cate Huston is an Extreme Blue intern who stumbled across her dream project at IBM. She asks:

What if you don’t get so lucky? What if you don’t happen upon someone working on something you’re that passionate about?

Two thoughts. The first: Luck is overrated.

I’m here because of a gazillion coincidences that just happened to turn out this way. I’m working on Innovation Discovery because they liked my work after bringing me in as a workshop speaker on collaboration and Gen Y, which happened because Nicoline Braat recommended them to me, which happened because she read my blog, which happened because she stumbled across me on the intranet (presentations? communities?), which happened because I joined IBM, which happened because I fell in love with the company while doing my research funded by the IBM Toronto Center for Advanced Studies, which happened because I did my master’s at the University of Toronto, which happened because U of T accepted me and offered me full funding, which happened because my future research supervisor met me and was convinced I’d be a good fit, which happened because I met him when we were both in Japan, which happened because I was checking out interesting research groups at U of T, which happened because of my interest in personal information management (and the recommendation of U of T from an old friend who had also been a scholar there), which happened because I got into Emacs and Planner, which happened because I got into open source in university, which happened because I wanted to do more than what we took up in computer science classes, which I took up because I loved programming, which I taught myself when I was in grade school because my sister was doing it and she refused to teach me, which I could do because I loved using the computer, which was because we had an Apple ][e clone in the house, which happened because my parents thought it would be educational… (And there are many other branching coincidences along the way!)

Am I lucky? Yes. Could it have turned out better or worse? Yes. Did I have something to do with that luck? Probably, by casting a wide and deep net: wide in terms of interests that could lead to new passions and in terms of people watching out for opportunities , and deep in terms of building skills that helped me make the most of new opportunities.

You will always walk on the edge of possibilities, an unimaginably complex path culminating in the present and branching off into innumerable opportunities in the future.

Luck. Prepare the soil, plant seeds, and share the ongoing harvest.

Second: Passion is overrated. ;)

By that, I mean that people often hope—or expect—to be swept away by some grand passion, to wake up one morning and find a flame burning in their heart and a job opening that neatly takes advantage of that new flame.

I don’t know much about that because I don’t remember falling in love with my first passion. I’ve been using computers and delighting in how I could use them since before memory.

But I do remember falling in love with writing, because I used to hate it in school. I hated writing book reports and critical analyses that no one else would really read, and that felt like I was just making things up.

Translated into a different context—the very geeky context of sharing code and tips—the love of writing snuck up on me gradually.

Trees start as little seeds and saplings. More often than people expect, passion builds from skill and intention. Sometimes you have to be good at something—or at least decent—before you can love it.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t find work that builds on their strengths and compensates for their weaknesses. Sometimes, though, you can learn a lot about your strengths and surprise yourself with your (non-)weaknesses by applying yourself to something.

No matter what you do, find something to be passionate about and build on it. Build that aspect up as much as you can. When you ride your passion to the limits of your role, you’ll have clues about the next role to take.

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    08 August 2010 at 6:08pm
    [...] Well, what if it turns out that this isn’t my passion? I agree with Sacha ...
  • Rule #1: Don’t freak out
  • rdi

    “You will always walk on the edge of possibilities.”

    I love this phrase!

  • and I love this,

    “No matter what you do, find something to be passionate about and build on it. Build that aspect up as much as you can. When you ride your passion to the limits of your role, you’ll have clues about the next role to take.”

  • And I really love your feedback, because it helps me figure out what I’m doing well (or interestingly). Thanks! =)

  • Brendon Robinson

    There is a quote that has been variously attributed: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” There are other quotes with related meanings too.

  • Pingback: Rule #1: Don’t freak out()

  • I speak about passion a lot personally and professionally. Your Blog post has inspired me to actually look up the meaning of the word. I quote: “Passion (from the Latin verb patior, meaning to suffer or to endure, also related to compatible) is an emotion applied to a very strong feeling about a person or thing”. I was quite impressed to learn that a large part of the definition is inherited in the Latin meaning to suffer or endure. Then I thought of my passions in life and they do appear to be things that I have endured, toiled and struggled with. I think of the people that I respect the most in life and they are the people who made me suffer in a positive light and challenged me through endurance. Sacha, I love your quote “trees start as little saplings” which is where we all originated. Do you believe that it is possible to have a passion where pain, suffering or endurance is not present?

  • If there was pain, suffering, or endurance involved in my passions for programming, writing, or experimenting with relentless improvement, the memories have been worn away by joy. =)

  • Thanks for writing this, Sacha!

    I agree – passion is overrated, and I guess what I mean by seeking it is I want to be working on something which I feel is genuinely useful and making a difference (this will be my tree sapling, if you will). Much as I love working at IBM, the focus on making software for companies makes it a little harder.

    However lately talking to you, and the number of presentations I’ve attended has made me see it differently – on Monday I stood 6ft from Sam Palmissano as he talked about the vision for a smarter planet. I’m starting to get it.

  • I don’t make software for companies. =) I’m making life better. Software is a way of doing that – creating tools with baked-in capabilities and convenience so that people can focus on doing what they need or want to do.

    It might seem difficult to see the connection between what you’re working on and the bigger vision. Many managers aren’t good at communicating that vision, either. You can do quite a lot to find/make that vision yourself. (See teaching story about building a cathedral.)

    Smarter planet? Yes, part of it might be marketing, but part of it gives me the awesome shivers as I work together with people to help shape the future. =)

    For example, the community toolkit: I’m working on it for fun. No need to ask for 20% time because I’ve got my other responsibilities covered. Lots of people are using it, and who knows if it can help communities be more vibrant, and if more vibrant communities might help people connect and collaborate better, and if that results in serendipitous connections that snowball into a tool that helps find a cure for cancer? It could happen, y’know. ;)

    Or maybe that little tool will take us a step closer to figuring out how we can more flexibly work together, and that influences the way we work at IBM, and that influences the way our clients and partners work, and that organizations that learn from us, and that makes future people happier because they work in a more connected and fulfilling way. Who knows?

    (And that’s just a side-project! =) )

    Whatever I work on, I’m going to make a difference with it. Whatever you work on, you can make a difference with it too. You learn about scaling up along the way: little investments of time and energy that can help you magnify your results, get real leverage.

    That said, it helps to work at a company with big visions, and to be part of a team that gets it. Google has a good vision: organize the world’s information. IBM’s vision rocks, too. Build a smarter planet.

    The B2B stuff? Sure, it doesn’t have the same cachet as working on something everyone knows and experiences, but it enables different kinds of scaling. If we can help more organizations get better at making _their_ visions happen (particularly when they’re in line with ours!), we touch lots of people’s lives. =)

    I say passion is overrated because I think many people use it as an excuse to avoid taking enough responsibility for cultivating their passion and their vision. ;) When you take charge of that, you’ll find possibilities practically everywhere.