Ration the Passion, Please

by Nick de Voil 9. February 2011 15:01
The number one attribute that any jobseeker must display these days is "passion". And any enterprise that wants your business will swear that they are "passionate" about what they do. I'm not sure when this craze started – I think it was some time in the 1990's. By now, it’s completely out of control. Passion is de rigueur. To be suspected of a lack of passion for one’s work is considered a failing on a par with being "un-American" in the USA of the 1950's or "un-Communist" in the USSR of the 1930's.

The latest manifestation to attract my attention is this article by John Hagel and John Seely Brown entitled "What is your IT organisation doing to fuel workers' passion?" In it, they lament a recent survey’s finding that four out of five US workers are "not passionate about their jobs".

Please, let's get real. Look. The word "passion" means "suffering". You're experiencing passion if you're in the grip of an uncontrollable emotion. Do we really expect workers in a call centre or a burger joint to feel like that about their work? Really?

I think it’s reasonable to expect a footballer to feel passionate about his work when he’s actually engaged in it. Or a musician. But a software developer? A real estate salesman? Don’t be silly. Most of us work to live, rather than live to work.

Is this just a typical old-fashioned Englishman's sang-froid? Maybe. Certainly, when I was younger, it was considered desirable to minimise public displays of emotion, not manufacture them.

And that's the problem I have with this passion business. It is manufactured. It's a fake. A lie. Why do we all go along with it? Maybe because each of us is afraid that we'll be considered inadequate if we aren't "passionate" about our work. Well, to be honest, some days I like my work, and some days I don't. To be truthful, most people I've worked with are the same.

As someone who runs software projects for a living, I have a professional interest in being truthful about people. Robert N. Charette wrote in 2005, "If there's a theme that runs through the tortured history of bad software, it's a failure to confront reality." Nowadays, the rise of the User Experience profession holds out the hope that systems in future will be designed on the basis of a firmer grasp of reality. But that hope will prove illusory if we don't acknowledge what people are really like. We can't design systems that help people in their work if we're designing for "correct" but unrealistic stereotypes rather than real people.