Just as Odysseus bound himself to a pole upon approaching the island of the Sirens, we have to rationally restrain ourselves from the sweet callings of our passion when building products. Passion ennobles us with a strong impetus for moving forward, but also drags us into an abyss of self-deception.
It is a mere romantic misconception that passion is the driving force that will inexorably guide us towards our goals no matter the circumstances. The clichéd idea of following our hearts has insinuated our minds with a belief that the passion is a bottomless supply of divine inspiration and energy. Yet such belief cannot be more detached from the reality. Passion is erratic and unreliable, and we cannot build great products by relying on it.
In today’s cultural climate, any attempt to downplay passion seems to be discounted as a pessimistic rant. “You can do anything,” sings Firehouse, “just follow your heart.” In a culture that lionizes and romanticizes the very notion of ‘passion,’ claiming that we should look away from it might appear as self-rationalization of the weak mind. Could it be that sympathizers of such anti-passion sentiments are not brave enough, or not passionate enough to follow what their hearts desire? No. On the contrary, I belive that it is our job as rational product makers to think deeply about philosophies that guide us before mindlessly throwing ourselvs at them.
In spite of the massive cultural inertia beckoning us to worship passion, we need to question what passion means to our product building philosophy, not because we are weakly minded, but because group thinking can suffocate our creative potential and tragically rob the world of our voices. In this article, I will discuss why passion is an unreliable motivation for building a product, and why makers might want to curb their enthusiasm.
Passion Is Not Endless
Passion is not an endless reservoir that holds all the energy and grit to keep us moving. Despite the feel-good rock’n’roll lyrics or heart-warming success narratives of those that bite the bullet to follow their hearts’ commands, we have to come to terms with the fact that passion does run out, eventually and inevitably. When it does, and it will, our pursuits built upon passion will halt and come crashing down hard. It is in that unexpected destitution of passion that a product meets its premature death.
Such ephemeral nature of passion is evident in a cycle I often experience as a software developer. From time to time, I would get a fascinating side project idea. For the next few weeks, I would work on the project eagerly and joyously. But after the impassioned state of mind, there inevitably follows boredom in which my excitement gradually subsides until I am no longer motivated to keep going. In this foolish journey, however, an end signals yet another beginning. I would soon start working on a new project idea that I am passionate about and the cycle would continue.
I believe that most hackers and product makers must have gone through a similar cycle at least once. We all have unfinished products or open source projects under our rugs. A project fueled solely by passion and excitement dashs in its headlong flight to a deadly quicksand. Yet we seldom call halt to its reckless course, because the world imbues the mindless pursuit of the heart with a certain air of glory. “Why does it matter if your project fails or never gets finished,” the world consoles us, “after all, you tried, and you might as well deserve a participation trophy!”
Recollecting the projects I shipped in the past, I can think of many situations in which dwindling passion led me to abandone projects. Here is what I wrote in my previous article about building RemoteBase:
Six months ago, I spent two months building a code review software called Vym as a side project. You can see my excitement for that project in the post, I Am Making Vym.
But that excitement was short-lived. A month after launch, I completely lost my motivation to continue because no one was using the product.
Unless we stop and reflect on what really happens to our motivation for the products over time and why it happens, the cycle will continue relentlessly, fueled by our ignorance, leading us to no direction in particular. We are often too quick to give ourselves a pat on the back for trying and to move on to yet another journey destined to prematurely and unsuccessfully consummmate.
Passion Is An Addiction
We are addicted the passion. Yet we do not realize the fact that there is even an addiction. After all, if following our passion is all honorable and righteous, it sounds errorneous to describe our pursuit of heart as ‘addiction.’ Such self-perpetuating negligence glamorizes our products’ deaths resulting from depletion of passion, and encourages us to relapse into the vicious cycle of half-finished products.
Embarking on new projects grants us a fair share of fix for excitement. It is at the beginning of a project that our passion is at its strongest. In its heightened and unadulterated form, passion whispers to us in its sweet voice that we are in pursuit of something meaningful and greater than ourselves. It continues to amplify itself only until it suddenly stops and eventually subsides. Jumping from one product to another, we might be seeking our temporary fix of moral virtue of pride in the name of following our passion.
We are addicted to the sense of pride and ambitiousness we get from observing ourselves in the pursuit of hearts’ command. While we might have all the rights to be proud of ourselves for ambitiously pursuing our calling, in the midst of celebration we seem to lose touch with the reality. We start putting our desire for self-validation and need for excitement ahead of actually solving problems. It is in our egotistical journey of fulfilling our hearts that we fail to see through our addiction and or even to recognize it.
In this way passion slyly drags us down to the bottomless pit of self-deception. Blinded by the delusions of moral superiority, we might never escape the dangerous and vicious cycle of our addiction. A prominent sociobiologist Robert Trivers captures the danger of such self-deception remarkably well:
… there must be strong selection … for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray—by the subtle signs of self-knowledge— the deception being practiced.
In other words, we might be so invested in our enthusiastic pursuit of passion that we stand a very little chance of realizing the danger of the passion-addiction and the harm it is doing to our creative potential. Unless we take a difficult step back and carefully analyze what we have been led to believe about passion, the inescapable traps of self-deception will only further ensnare us.
Our perennial surrender to passion has wrought deaths of countless products and murder of our creative energy. Does our tendency to succumb to our hearts’ command suggest the futility of appeals to bring our attention to the debilitating nature of passion? Certainly. I believe that passion can embolden our belief in the rectitude of our pursuit of itself. Under passion’s authority, bringing its righteousness into scrutiny seems nearly impossible. So I do not expect this article alone to cause us to lay down our unhealthy adulation for passion.
Yet, our unwavering praise of passion does not foreshadow only grim outlooks. There is a silver lining because nothing is inherently wrong about following our passion. All the negativity aside, the journey fueled by such pursuit can be beautiful, fulfilling, and even inspiring. All in all, it seems that effect of passion on our creative potential depends on our understanding. We have in our disposal a sword that can cut either our own flesh and bones, or the obstacles looming ahead. It is time to wield our blade wisely. Which will we choose to slash?
Such fatal decision puts the onus onto us to carefully calibrate our expectations and understanding of what it means to be passionate about something. We must tread carefully. We might be fortunate enough to partake in a meaningful journey, or be helplessly lured by the enchanting Siren call into a wreckage of self-deception, driving our galloping chariot of creativity into its fatal death. The real question facing us is not “what are we passionate about?”, but “what does it mean to be passionate about what we are passionate about?”