It’s Hard, and I’m Just Not Passionate About It.
Words that make me cringe. I get frustrated and annoyed with things just like anyone else, but I’ve never felt the sentiment of these sentences – yet I’ve heard them from entrepreneurs looking to start their own companies, from consultants working on projects, and from people trying their best to orbit the giant hairball that is a Fortune company. It’s typically a plea for approval, even when said casually over a beer; the long, unspoken form is “It’s hard, and I’m just not passionate about it, and I’m thinking of giving up – will you tell me it’s OK to give up, so I’ll feel better about it in the morning?”
I’ll offer a quick anecdote, and then I want to poke at these words a little and see if I can understand them better, and perhaps offer advice on how to overcome the emotions of these ideas.
When I was at another educational institution, I worked on proposing a new graduate degree in Interaction Design. This effort took approximately a year, and required crafting a proposal, socializing it with various Vice Presidents, presenting it to peers at a Curriculum Council, refining it based on feedback, and ultimately, pushing forward a vision that serves students and a profession, while trying to navigate a highly political environment. It’s like any other design activity in a big institution: it was hard, and I had to be passionate about it all of the time. I ran into all of the political bullshit you would imagine (“Interaction is too vague; why don’t we just call it a Masters in Multimedia?”), and some that would surprise you (a Dean of Liberal Arts that was adamant, to the point of blocking the proposal entirely, that anyone who teaches qualitative design research must have a PhD in Anthropology).
I failed in getting the proposal through, and as a result, I left the institution. The experience had all the makings of “It’s hard, and I’m just not passionate about it.” But in reflecting on my efforts, I never felt that, and I have some thoughts about why.
There’s a challenge, and it’s wearing me down. Can you produce artifacts along the way that illustrate forward momentum, and force yourself to reflect on those artifacts occasionally? The longer you approach a difficult problem, the more likely you are to feel a lack of forward movement. I was able to see evidence of my effort in things as small as the incremental filename/number of the proposal document (38 versions of this thing?) and in the physical curriculum map that I taped to the office wall.
I need skills I don’t have in order to succeed. How can you get those skills, or find someone who has them to help you? I had never proposed a Masters Degree before, and I had no idea how to do it. I reached out to some faculty who had successfully defined and proposed new programs, and asked for their advice and support.
My confidence in my own abilities is low. Your confidence in your own abilities needs to be irrelevant to you; that is, while others may have the emotional need to see you as a rational, confident contributor, you need to ignore the idea of confidence entirely, and have a laser focus on your work. I’ve found a simple internal dialogue works for me; when I catch the little voice questioning if I can do something, I quite literally tell myself, in my head, “Shh. I’m working.” Believe it or not, it works.
Things are outside of my control. Of course they are! The bigger your project, and the more impact you’ll likely have, the more people that end up getting involved and the more actions you’ll encounter that literally don’t make any sense. Throughout the process, dial-up the empathy and try your best to see the world from someone else’s perspective. With my proposal, I didn’t do this: I kept thinking, over and over, “Why are they being so stupid?” I’ve since learned a better question to ask: “What perspective do they have that’s causing them to react to my proposal in such a different way?” Force yourself to consider their perspective.
I’m not given the time to do what needs to be done. There are 168 hours in a week, and if I get a nice night’s sleep, there’s close to 120 left. I view my 120 hours as full of huge potential: think of all the things I might do! You can prioritize your time any way you want, but I think it’s important to be conscious of your priorities, and so I try to articulate them to myself: I put my projects into mental buckets, and continually revise which buckets get the most attention.
“I’m just not passionate about it.”
I don’t feel good when I’m doing it. I think this is actually a distraction, and not really about passion. I’ve found, for myself, that this feeling usually has to do with the items above: a lack of visible progress, a lack of dedicated time, a mismatch between my abilities and the challenge of the task at hand, or something going on in my life that has nothing to do with the work. And all of these things are under my control: I can change something to improve them.
I don’t really have an opinion about it. Force yourself to have an opinion about the importance of your work at a “thirty-thousand foot level”. This opinion can change, and should change as the work evolves and you gain perspective from others. But the strength of design work comes from constantly having an opinion, and manifesting this through a particular level of craft and follow-through of execution. In the case of my proposal, I felt strongly that interaction design shapes culture in a positive way, and that teaching students interaction design would help the world be a better place. That’s huge and lofty, which is, in its amorphousness, strange and foreign. But it provides a reason for doing the work in the first place.
I don’t care if it succeeds. Passion is contagious, and so is apathy. If you don’t care, no one else will, either.
“It’s hard, and I’m just not passionate about it” is rarely about difficulty or enthusiasm. I’ve found that it’s usually about other things, things I can manage, change, or otherwise control. If you find yourself in the apathy conundrum, try to use different words to describe your situation, and you may find that you just need to reframe from a new perspective.