Category Archives: passion

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.

Thinking out loud: happiness

Is it true that most people don’t know what they’re good at? That’s interesting. Maybe I can help.

I may not be the world’s best expert, but I’m good enough to enjoy writing, programming, drawing, and speaking. I’m good at being happy. I’m getting the hang of drawing and gardening. I’m starting on carpentry. I’m good at picking up new ideas and making connections.

It reminds me of how in improv comedy, my classmates struggled to fill two minutes with a list of things they loved. Me, I hardly paused for breath.

I might have figured out something here that I can help other people learn.

My mom tells this story about when she came across me reading a book far beyond my age. She asked me if I understood it. I said that I didn’t understand it the first time around, but I knew that if I kept reading it again and again, I would eventually understand it.

Maybe I’m good at figuring out what I’m good at because I give myself permission to be bad at things.

Maybe my life is filled with experiences, people, and things I love because I not only work on shaping my life, but adapting to it. (It took a while to get the hang of seasons, for example.)

I wonder what I’m doing right and how I can share it with others.


(click for a bigger version)

My dad: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been surrounded by examples of passion. My father’s passion for making things happen drove him to become a legend in the Philippines (no, seriously, there’s a mountain tribe that’s woven him into their tribal stories), and his passion for advertising photography helped both our family and the business grow.

My dad works long hours and invests a lot of time and energy in learning, but it’s almost like play for him. From his example, I learned that passion is an amazing thing that can infect other people and make big things happen. I also learned that it can be difficult to find other people who are as passionate as you are, and you need to be strong so that you can weather the ups and downs of passion. I learned from how my mom supported and enabled my dad’s passions, and how they drew people together to help create opportunities.

I learned how passion can lead to success and prosperity, although the road may be long and difficult. But in the grips of your passion, you can’t help but follow it.

One of my dad’s favourite pieces of advice for beginning photographers is this:

Passion and Profit – nice to hear, di ba? Pero sa totoo lang – passion muna bago profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, matagal ka munang magpapasyon bago ka magka-profit.


Papa’s Talk, as recorded by Harvey Chua

Passion and profit – nice to hear, isn’t it? But the truth is, passion comes before profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, you have to suffer a long time before you can profit.

My mom: Compared with the clarity of my dad’s drive, my mom sometimes struggles to define her passions. She played a supporting role in building the family business, managing it and keeping it on an even keel. But I remember how she had shelves and shelves of books on parenting, education, advertising, and marketing, and how she was always learning. She told us a story of how she taught herself calculus so that she could help us prepare for exams. If that’s not passion for us, what is?

Grade school: My sisters and I went to St. Scholastica’s College for grade school, and there were many great role models for passion there as well. I have fond memories of many of my teachers, who showed their everyday dedication in the classroom. Mrs. Castillo (the principal) was clearly passionate about education, and she shared her enthusiasm with us in weekly speeches and newsletters. She was passionate about the role of drama in education, too, and we put on school plays with the help of Tita Naty Crame-Rogers—another powerhouse of passion.

I discovered the first of my great passions when I was in grade school, too. My eldest sister was learning Turbo Pascal in high school. I loved imitating whatever she did, and she hated it when I did that, so I wanted to learn how to program and she refused to teach me. I taught myself by reading the manual when she wasn’t around, and I found that I really enjoyed being able to get the computer to do what I wanted it to do. (Perhaps being the youngest had something to do with that too – I had no one to order around but the computer! ;) )

I loved working on the computer so much that my mom had to set up a much-contested schedule for computer time. The more I learned, the more I enjoyed learning. By the time I was in grade 6, I was helping my teachers learn how to use the new applications they had at school.

High school: Studying at Philippine Science High School meant being surrounded by geeks of all persuasions. I met people who were passionate about physics or chemistry or mathematics or biology. I saw how people could be incredibly talented at arts or drama or sports. My niche was computer programming, and I was very good at it. Being around so many people who were passionate about something or another was fantastic, and I learned a lot from our multiplicity of talents.

The only downside of this, I suppose, was that I let the abundance of talent convince me to focus on only a few things. In grade school, for example, everyone acted in the plays and everyone was involved in production. Everyone drew and everyone danced. In high school – especially in a high school that drew the best students from all over the Philippines – the differences in talent and experience meant that it became easy to think of writing or drawing or acting as things that other, more talented people did.

I had gotten to know my first year computer teacher through bulletin-board systems even before high school, and he knew that I was very interested in computers. While the rest of my classmates learned how to use MS-DOS Edit and Microsoft Windows, he challenged me by giving me administrator access to a Linux machine, telling me how to find the documentation, and asking me to set up a Linux-based BBS. I loved the way there was so much to learn about this unfamiliar operating system.

Programming contests: My first-year high school teacher also encouraged me to try out for programming competitions. I solved five of the problems they set for us, and I made it into the team. We trained during summers and the school year, and we participated in international competitions.

It was incredible being among so many computer geeks! I loved figuring out algorithms and discussing data structures with other people who enjoyed programming as much as I did. I learned how to work under time pressure and how to take advantage of other people’s strengths in our team.

I also learned about mismanagement. The international programming competitions we participated in high school were part of a regional computing conference. One year, the organization raised enough funds to make sure that the Philippines could send a team the next year. When the next year came around, the funds were missing, and we had to raise funds again. It taught me that passion is good, but you still need to keep an eye out for people who might take advantage of it.

University: I continued participating in programming competitions throughout university. I took computer science and had tons of fun learning. Because my entrance exam results had placed me in advanced classes and I took extra classes during summer, I had room to either do a double-major in math or take a lighter load in my fourth year of university. I took a few extra courses in math before deciding that path wasn’t for me, so I scaled down to 12 units a semester – about four classes – in my final year. This was also around the time that I got into open source development and wearable computing, and I put the extra time to great use. I discovered the joys of working on software that other people would actually use, and I had tons of fun experimenting with new technology.

I learned that time—particularly long blocks of unstructured time—can be really useful for pursuing passion, and that I loved working on things that made people’s lives easier. Working with about 200 passionate users of Planner (a Emacs-based personal information manager), I learned how I could help people work better by building tools that fit the way they work.

Blogging: Working on that personal information manager also got me into blogging. When I started working on the project, it already had a way to store quick notes and publish web pages. I figured out how to produce a feed based on those notes, and I tested it by publishing my own website. I used the site to share my class notes and programming ideas. I was surprised to find that people were reading it, and even more surprised to find that people thought it was valuable. So I got into the habit of writing about what I was learning, and that helped me learn so much more along the way.

Reading people’s blogs also taught me a lot about passion. When I learned about the skill/joy learning curve, I realized that passion doesn’t come immediately. As you learn more, you develop your ability to enjoy what you’re doing, and you learn even more, and you enjoy even more.

Work – must add to diagram: In fact, blogging helped me find an opportunity to follow my passion at work, too. While doing my thesis on social computing, I posted my thoughts, questions, and results on my internal blog. I got to know so many amazing people who were also passionate about what they were doing, and I wanted to continue working with them. After lots of exciting interest interviews with people all over the world, I chose a job role that had been created for me – Web 2.0 consulting and application development with IBM’s Global Business Services. Since I joined IBM in 2007, not a week has gone by without a wow! moment related to following my passion.

Hobbies – must add to diagram: I’ve also finally shaken off that hang-up I had from high school about other people being more talented than I was at particular things. I’m happily exploring writing and drawing. I’m even making my peace with subjects I’d disliked in school, like sewing and woodworking. It’s a lot of fun, and who knows which of these interests might develop into passions in the future?

What have I learned about passion?

  • Passion is my responsibility, not that of my company or of people around me.
  • There are different kinds of passion. Most people think of fiery enthusiasm, but slow-and-steady passion is also very useful.
  • Passion can be infectious.
  • Enthusiasm may come and go. Be prepared. Hang on to the fundamentals, and have ways to recharge.
  • Having multiple interests means having many seeds for future passions.
  • Passion can start small.
  • Passions that work together multiply your benefits.
  • Sharing your passion helps you learn more and make a bigger difference.
  • There are people who try to diminish or take advantage of your passion. Stay focused and don’t get discouraged. Find and help people who make good use of your passion.

What do I hope to inspire people to do and be?

Inspiring? Me? Maybe that's something we can grow into.

It amazes me that people find my work and my life inspiring. It’s an honour to be able to share what I’m learning and to learn from how people build on it! I can’t wait to see what adventures we’ll share.

Sometimes I feel the twinges of the imposter syndrome. Sometimes I worry about things going to my head. But I want to be inspiring, the way my mom and dad are inspiring, the way that my role models are inspiring. Sometimes I suspect I’m an experiment in happiness. =) I want to be the person whose example reassures people that good things are possible.

If we’re creating this gift in the space between us (between us, because it’s too big to be just me), what will it be for?

What do I hope to inspire people to do and be?

I want to inspire people to be happy and passionate and alive. I want to show that work can be an expression of love, that happiness can survive in this world, and that good things do happen to good people. I want people to know that happiness isn’t something you strive for or buy, it’s something you are.

I want to inspire people to share. If people can learn from what I’ve shared of the things I’ve learned in these few years, imagine what people might learn from others (and from themselves!).

I want to inspire people to play to their strengths. Many introverted people feel limited by their personality, when it can be a real strength. Same goes for lots of other factors that we often mistake as weaknesses.

I want to inspire people to practice relentless improvement in a kind and loving how-can-we-make-things-better way (as opposed to here-are-all-the-ways-you-suck).

I want to inspire people to connect and collaborate to make bigger things happen, and to figure out their own big picture if they need to. You don’t need a special title in order to be a leader.

I also want to inspire people to read manuals, save up, spend time and energy and money on what matters, smile more, let go, and a million other things, but we’ll figure that out. ;)

It’s a big thing, too big for my small hands. But I have  a world to learn from, many conspirators, and (I hope) decades to explore.

I don’t want to be a star, shining but remote. I want to be a lens that helps bring out the light and colour of people around me.

How can we grow towards that?

In my dreams of wild success

In my dreams of wild success, I am not an executive, not a manager, not a consultant, not a seller. I am a maker.

I don’t architect complex systems. I build on the human scale: small, simple tools that make individual people’s lives better.

The mechanical translation of designs and diagrams to code has moved to other countries. Development is seen as less valuable, less interesting, less glamorous. There must still be opportunities for invention, for finding a need and solving it.

I love the concrete progress of checking requests off my list, delighting people, and building something that saves people time and effort.

This is interesting for me, because I’m learning that my happiness map can change, and there’s always more to learn. It turns out that I’m more passionate about coding than about coaching people on collaboration or helping executives learn about emerging business trends.

Maybe work is like happiness. It’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey. I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy what I used to do, too. There are multiple ways forward.

Like the way I learned to not stress out about “potential” in life, I need to learn how to not stress out about “potential” at work.

I don’t have a clear path for myself yet. I haven’t picked a life out of a catalogue and said, “That’s who I want to be.” I haven’t picked a job description and made that my goal.

I don’t know. There, I admitted it. This might discourage people from investing in my career. Who wants to groom someone for a particular field and then have them cross over into a different one? But I’d rather be clear about figuring things out than pretend that I’m certain.

I love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about what we can do at IBM as we learn how to work smarter. I enjoy helping people brainstorm and innovate. I’m exploring this with IBM because I’m in the right place at the right time, and I can help make bigger things happen.

But I want my life to also include rolling up my sleeves and making things myself. At some point in my life, I want to build systems that people will enjoy using.

Maybe I’ll take a sabbatical in a number of years. Maybe I’ll free up time to do this as a hobby.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll find more role models for this other path, and my dreams will expand to include what I’ve learned from them too.

What do you see in your dreams of wild success? Does it match how you’re living?

Thinking about what I want to do with IBM

It’s almost time to make my personal business commitments. It’s a great time to think about what I want to do with IBM.

There are the existing goals and commitments that come down through the management chain. I want to work with IBM on making those happen because I believe in what we’re doing, and I believe that the work will help me grow. Saying yes to those is easy.

And then there’s the really important question of what I want to do with IBM, if IBM can be this platform that lets me make a bigger difference. What I want to do with IBM is to build a world where work really does flow like water, where people can do and be their best wherever they are.

If we can figure out how to work with the system—if we can figure out how to align and support even a fraction of the energy and talent in this 400,000-strong organization and our extended ecosystem—imagine how much we can help change the world and how much better we’ll work. Look at how much the world has already changed in the past few decades. Wouldn’t it be amazing to find out what we could do if we could help people fully use their talents?

So what does that look like, long-term?

  • People can easily and effectively collaborate with people around the world. This means knowing how to reach out and find resources, work together, and deliver results. Challenge: Lots of growing pains right now, especially as work moves around the world and companies shift towards more diverse workforces. People don’t know which tools to use when, and we’re still figuring out how to work together.
  • People can work on what they’re good at and passionate about. We can get better at connecting people with opportunities and adapting to changing needs.
  • People learn and share as much as they can. Learning from other people and sharing what we’re learning becomes a natural part of the way we work.
  • People work well. We communicate clearly, without too much jargon. We communicate as people, not hiding behind passive words or inhuman abstractions. We connect with each other.

How can I help make this real?

  • Consulting: I can help organizations, communities, teams, and individuals change the way they work by helping them learn about tools, practices, and success stories. I can coach people on how to develop new practices. I can look for what people are doing well, document those practices, and explore how they can work even better. If I can get really good at consulting, I can help people identify the strengths that they can build on, recognize and share what works, and plan how to address the challenges that get in the way of collaboration.
  • Practising relentless improvement: I’m good at looking for small ways to improve processes and building tools to help people work more effectively. If I can get really good at relentless improvement, I’ll be able to identify key changes that help people work much more effectively, shape a culture where people love practising relentless improvement themselves, and formalize and share improvements through processes and tools.
  • Learning and sharing: I’m good at learning tons from people around me and sharing what I’m learning through presentations, blog posts, and other ways to scale up the knowledge. If I can get really good at learning and sharing, I’ll be able to inspire people to learn and share, map out what people need to know, share lots of insights, and organize it so that people can find what they need.
  • Connecting: I’m good at connecting people with other people, resources, and tools. This is partly because of a wide network and broad exposure, partly because I deliberately look for ways I can connect people, and partly because I work on taking notes and thinking of associations. If I can get really good at connecting, I’ll be able to not only help people build on others’ work instead of duplicating effort, but also push the network knowledge into the organization so that people can find relevant people and resources without being bottle-necked by connectors. I could also get really good at connecting and then use this to help clients understand complex technical systems.
  • Showing the big picture: I’m good at showing people how they fit into the big picture, why their work matters, what else is going on, and what they can do next to grow. If I can get really good at helping people see that, I’ll be able to shape people’s motivation to work, help people stay passionate and engaged, and show what the next steps are.

It’s interesting to look at this list. Although I enjoy building systems and developing my technical skills, I think I’ll get closer to what I want to do by focusing on the business side. My technical aspect helps me because I can automate tasks, crunch numbers, analyze information, and build tools for remembering things. For the kinds of challenges I’m really curious in exploring, though, technology isn’t the limiting factor. Technology-wise, things change really quickly, and I’m confident that people can build what we need. What we’re limited by is our ability to change and learn.

What does that look like in the short- and medium-term? What can I work towards for my career?

One of the quirks about planning my career is that I don’t need to work towards a specific position in order to make the kind of difference I want to make. I can already work on this from where I am. My current role already involves all of those capabilities to some extent, and I also contribute outside my official job role. My work with Innovation Discovery helps me learn about all sorts of interesting people and interesting projects. My mentors teach me about consulting skills and facilitation techniques. My tasks provide me with plenty of opportunities for relentless improvement. Learning and sharing, connecting people across the organization, helping people see the big picture and the next steps—these are things I do for work and fun.

So, how can I make the future even better than today?

  • Better alignment: The more closely my goals and my team’s goals are aligned, the more resources I can tap to make things happen, and the better IBM and our clients can take advantage of what I’m good at.
  • Immersion: If I focus on developing one capability (or a set of related ones), I can create and share more value faster than if I spread myself out. For example, if I focused on doing lots of technology adoption coaching, I can build lots of resources around that instead of making gradual progress in lots of areas. (Although touching so many different areas of work also helps me with connecting…)
  • Better inspiration: If I work with other high-performing teams that do connection and collaboration really well, I can learn tons, share insights with other teams, and bring my own talents to the mix. If I work with different kinds of high-performing teams, I’ll learn different things. For example, I’m currently learning a ton about working with decision-makers and spanning boundaries within IBM, because those are the things my Innovation Discovery team excels at. I wonder what other teams can teach me, and how they might benefit from cross-pollination.
  • More leverage: I can learn about contributing through a team in addition to contributing as an individual. People-management sounds like it’ll take a lot more work than individual contribution (and management seems less secure, too!), but it seems to be a good way to break past the limits on how much value I can individually create. I have 24 hours in the day, like anyone else, but if I can figure out how to be a great manager and enable lots of other people to work at their peak, we can create more collective value. I love learning about management and leadership, and I’m curious about what’s possible. I don’t know enough about this because most of my mentors are individual contributors, so I don’t have a good sense yet of whether management would be a good fit or how I can go about exploring it.

There are many paths that I can take. Here are a few paths that people have recommended I think about:

  • Working towards becoming a client IT architect: David Ing recommended this because it involves low travel, takes advantage of my strengths in connecting the dots and keeping complex systems in my head, and helps me build a deep understanding of a particular industry (probably public sector?). It’s a revenue position, so it should keep me relatively safe from resource actions, and it will allow me to continue contributing to IBM.
  • Focus on collaboration, maybe figure out some kind of rotational program between client-facing and staff positions: I would love to alternate between focusing on helping our clients adapt and helping IBM adapt. If I have the capacity to do this simultaneously, even better. Working with IBM will help me deepen my understanding and empathize with client challenges, while working with clients will help me share what we’re learning and broaden our perspectives. David Singer suggested this because being client-facing means not having to worry too much about other people cutting budgets, while the rotational aspect will help me learn more.
  • Working towards becoming a master inventor. Boz suggested this one because I love helping people come up with and improve ideas, I love learning, and I love connecting the dots.

Staff positions are interesting and I know a lot of people who do incredible work. I love the variety of my internal and external network and the things I learn from constant interaction with clients, though. So it looks like I’ll focus on growing as a consultant and figuring out how to be the bridge. Following an individual contribution path will give me more flexibility, I think, than growing into people management.

I’m fascinated by small businesses and entrepreneurship, but an organization of IBM’s scale and influence can do so many amazing things. I want to figure out how to work with an enterprise like this to make things happen. So I’m going to figure out what I can do with IBM, because I want to make a bigger difference than I can make alone. =)

What does that mean for the next year and the next few years?

  • I can deepen the work that I do with Innovation Discovery by volunteering to take on more responsibility for engagements, or by applying relentless improvement to the social networking and collaboration topics that clients are interested in. Scaling the program up is interesting and creates value, but if I’m going to focus on that, I need to figure out how to focus more on the consulting or sales aspect instead of taking the training/staff approach so that it’s in line with my long-term goals.
  • If I want to focus on the client IT architect path, I can find a mentor and look for engagements that will let me immerse myself in other kinds of systems and how to work with them. Yes, even if that means stepping outside my wonderful open source / web application world. After all, our team is good at application services, so I should take advantage of those competencies.
  • If I want to grow towards the strategy and transformation practice, I can find mentors, shadow or support engagements focused on Web 2.0, and build more thought leadership inside and outside IBM around collaboration and technology adoption.
  • I can deepen my technical leadership capabilities by sharing what I’m learning, exploring more virtual leadership skills, and helping people become better technical leaders and individual contributors.

What are some next actions that I can take?

  • Find role models in strategy and transformation, learning and knowledge, and other areas that I’m considering. Find out what their work is like and look for resonance.
  • Negotiate my job role with the Innovation Discovery team so that we can deliberately develop certain capabilities.
  • Invest into learning and sharing as much as possible around collaboration and change, learning about different industries along the way.

If I can build lots of understanding and insight around collaboration both within and outside IBM, then I can help people learn and experiment within the company, and I can inspire clients to learn and experiment as well, and I can (I hope!) convince clients to invest in partnering with IBM so that we can help them create value much faster.

So that’s what I’m thinking, and now that it’s outside my head and in a form I can share, I can work with other people on making it clearer.

Now the hard work begins: clarifying, creating, collaboratig, learning, sharing… =)