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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Myth of Passion



If you're a casual reader of this blog, you already know I'm no fan of self-help advocates or "life coaches." One reason is that they don't really help anyone other than the author/coach, who lines his pockets by hawking oversimplifications to innocents too unfortunate to know better.  Another is that, for the most part, their "solutions" simply don't work. 

It turns out that in life, the most effective means of solving problems is by actually solving your problems yourself.  Buying a book, popping a pill,  listening to a CD/podcast or attending a seminar might create the illusion of your being on the way to solving your issues, but none of them really do anything to adjust the situation and make you happier.  They just adjust your wallet and make you that much poorer.

Nevertheless, the self-help and life coach businesses are booming, mainly because most people would rather pay their way out of our problems than work their way out.  And the biggest problem is that most people aren't buying into truth.  They're buying into myths.

Of all the myths, the most dangerous has to be passion.  It accosts me daily in the twittersphere, where groundless quotes of inspiration can be founding teeming with quixotic quasi-poetry offered up by life coaches barely qualified to vote, let alone advise others about life problems.  Yet that doesn't stop them from perpetually parroting  prose about passion as if they were prophets of Providence.

Okay, so that was a little overwritten.  But I continue:

"Work is nothing without passion," notes one.  "If there's no passion, there's no point," spouts another.  And then there are the legions of lemmings who quote famous people -- mostly out of context -- in order to motivate their fix-it-for-a-price followers:  "Steve Jobs, in his address to Stanford's graduating class...."

Let me set the record straight:  Passion is a great thing.  It's the reason why men build great bridges and, more frequently, pay exorbitant prices at expensive restaurants while on dates with beautiful women.  If you've ever experienced real passion, you know what it is and where it lives.  And while it can be said that passion has driven men to do amazing things, the harsh reality is that the one thing passion doesn't do is pay the bills.

I've been around a fair amount of time and not once have I ever seen anyone, anywhere be compensated for his passion.  In business plans, on  spreadsheets or at the conference table, there is no mention nor remuneration for passion.  There is no line item on page 12 in the budget for passion.  Yet all across America, there are thousands of people barely scratching out a living because they're "following their passion" instead of getting down to real business.  They use passion as a salve to soothe their fears of failure and rationalize their inertia, never realizing that it's that very myth of passion that's causing them to fail.  If you doubt that, think about the last time you heard anyone rhapsodize about passion driving his success who wasn't already at the tail end of his career.  Sure, for them it's easy to lay it all on passion -- they're retiring.  They're done.  They can afford the luxury of rewriting history and making it about all passion because they've long since forgotten those times they threatened to quit if they didn't get a raise.

You, on the other hand, have bills to pay.  And last I heard, grocery stores aren't accepting passion in lieu of double coupons.

Actually, in business, passion is far more likely to get you fired than promoted, because more often than not, passion is the euphemism for a completely irrational, highly-motivated nut case -- and nobody wants those hanging around while everyone else is trying to succeed.  If you want the real news, it's this:  businesses are not about passion.  Careers are not about passion.  Careers and businesses are about performance, and the sooner you staple that concept to your frontal lobe, the better off you're going to be.

Now before you get all Rod McKuen on me, let's take a minute to point out that passion, by itself, is not a bad thing.  In fact, I believe that well-placed passion is a really good thing.  But passion is an intensely private, emotional thing.  A human thing, not given to rationality.  It's far more appropriate in a bedroom than a boardroom, which is why you never hear a CEO gasp breathlessly, "Wow, that was some PowerPoint presentation, Bob...will you stay for breakfast?"  Businesses want masters, not martyrs.

While we're on the subject, I should also point out that not every business is even compatible with passion.  When my sewers are clogged, I guarantee you that the guy who shows up wearing hip waders isn't singing The Impossible Dream as he dips his arm into unimaginable filth.  Don't try to tell me he's passionate about sewer stoppage.  And don't try to sell him on it, either, especially on a Sunday when he's earning triple overtime.

The late Malcom Forbes once uttered, "Business is war."  And he was right.  Business is about strategy, tactics -- and if you really want to stick a tag on it -- results.  But one thing business is not about is passion.  Yet time and again, I hear self-help advocates, life coaches and old, mega-wealthy CEO's equating "your level of passion to your ability to succeed."  

And that creates a huge moral, ethical issue for me, as it should for you.  Here's why:  

All across this great nation, millions of young adults are swallowing as much faux guidance as they can eat, in hopes of finding shortcuts that will lift them into successful and rewarding careers.  And most of them subsist on a steady diet of hack, baseless myths of passion, with the erroneous expectation that, as with Tinkerbell, if they're really passionate about it, they'll succeed.  

Well, this is their wake up call.  In the long list of attributes that comprise success, passion ranks pretty close to the bottom, way below smarts, luck, knowledge, talent, connections, parentage, culture, education, social class, persistence and yes, hard work. 

In the business world, passion and two bucks may get you a cup of coffee, but it won't even qualify you for a job as a barista.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Law & Order is for Suckers



The way I see it, it must have been a small man who invented the concept of law.  And before you get all feminist on me, I do believe it was a man who invented law for the very simple reason that only a small guy would have been motivated to do so.  The reason is simple:  Up until the invention and acceptance of law, things generally worked out the way large, brutish males wanted them to.  Back in the pre-law days, society was less ordered by morals than by murder, theft, assault and rape.  The only people who could get away with those acts were the aforementioned large, brutish males.

Smaller men had all the same territorial impulses as the big boys, it's just that they hadn't the physical means to affect them.  After a while, it must have been demoralizing to constantly have their cows stolen, wives kidnapped, daughters raped and sons murdered.  So there's a pretty strong argument that the guys most inclined to level the playing field would be those least capable of winning on the existing playing field:  That would be smaller men, to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude.

While I can't place my finger on the actual date when law overtook brute force as a means of establishing social order, it's probably safe to assume it occurred around the same time humans began to domesticate plants and animals.  Tribes became civilizations and somehow, the notion of everyone living by a common code was adopted as more beneficial than everyone killing everyone else for what few resources they had hoarded.

I like to think the ascendance of law is a high point in human history.  What I don't like to think about is what's happened since.  Because centuries of expansion, growth, misinterpretation and reinterpretation have yielded a somewhat counter intuitive result:

Law and order is for suckers.

That's right.  The system that was supposed to encourage individuals and enhance the human condition has actually had the opposite effect -- and it's getting worse on a daily basis.  Hear me out on this, because it's either frighteningly insightful or pointless entertainment.  Either way, you win.

If you believe that human beings are bright, creative, intelligent animals whose primary purpose is to build a better world for each succeeding generation, you might also subscribe to the notion that those very same humans are motivated by reward.  It's hard wired in our systems.  Moreover, since every human being is as individual as the proverbial snowflake, how he or she invents solutions to problems is influenced according to his or her own individual tastes and abilities.  This kind of diversity only adds fuel to humanity's creative fire.

People are only motivated to get out there and do something when we realize the benefits of doing so.  For some people, the benefit is making lots of money.  For others, it's connecting with that blonde sitting at the end of the bar.  Regardless, the only reason a human is going to move off the couch and into action is if he believes he'll be rewarded for his effort.

That's true of just about every aspect of society except for law and order.  True, while there's a vague, intangible benefit of keeping the crime rate lower, there's no realreward for obeying the law, there's only punishment for not obeying the law.  The truth is that by staying within the guidelines and not making trouble, you keep yourself out of trouble.  Which means that law and order, by its very nature, stifles the independent human spirit.

While law and order started out as a leveler of the playing field, it's since mutated into a system of control, actually repressing the very individuality it was originally designed to protect.

But wait.  It  gets weirder.

Not everyone accepts law and order.  Some people break out of the system, determined to flee the bonds of conformity.  These people are as fearless as they are feared, and they fall into two camps:  Leaders and Criminals.  The only real difference between them is that Leaders share their rewards with others, while Criminals keep their rewards for themselves.  And Leaders only share their rewards with others because they know that if they didn't, they'd be classified as Criminals.  That's why Steve Jobs is venerated and Charles Manson isn't:  Surveys and studies suggest higher-than-average rates of sociopathy among CEO's like Meg Whitman, who euphemistically describes the slashing of 29,000 jobs at Hewlett-Packard as "part of the company's turnaround" without batting an eyelash.  Meg's got shareholders with upside potential reward, so she gets a pass.  Charlie's path didn't provide rewards for others, so he got life with no possibility of parole.  Had he disobeyed his commanding officer and committed his same bloody acts against enemy soldiers during a war, he'd probably have earned himself a medal.

Okay, so Meg isn't as handy with a butcher knife, but you get the idea:  Those who step out of line get real rewards, while those who stay in line get their jobs taken away.  If you believe in law and order, you're easy to control.  You don't speak until spoken to. You take your smaller share because that's what you're given. You never complain because you don't want to rock the boat.  A generation or two of that kind of life and pretty soon your children buy into the idea that crowd-sourcing must be the right solution because everyone else thinks so -- no matter how wrong it is -- and besides, to speak above the crowd would invite discord.

Look, I'm a branding guy.  My world revolves around not being like everyone else.  So to me, watching society play out some freakish Ayn Rand reality is not only disturbing, but practically apocalyptic.  It poisons the very core of human nature and suffocates the creativity that fosters human growth.

This weekend when you're bicycling with the kids, leave the helmets at home.  Let them ride with the wind in their hair and the sun on their faces.  Take a risk. Even a small one.  Remind yourself of what an unpredictable adventure life is supposed to be -- instead of worrying about what might possibly get inked on your permanent record.

Unless, you know, you think it might get you in trouble.