Vision, passion and realism

Yvon Chouinard working in his shop in Burbank, 1965 [IMG_2765]

Whether you’re setting up a new business, developing a new product or creating a marketing campaign, if you’re involved in any creative endeavour, you hear a lot of advice about two things: vision and passion. You must have a clear vision of where you want to be — or the thing that you’re passionate about — because it gives you focus and drive; it’s something for a tribe to rally around; it makes your story ‘remarkable’.

It’s useful advice. It’s something I try to build into all my work; in how I define myself and the people I want to work with; the kinds of projects I take on, and the qualities I try to bring out in those projects. Often, when I talk about the importance of ‘being interesting’ in digital communications, it’s another way of talking about the vision behind a brand or service, or the passion that you or users feel for it.

Here’s how Mark Earls (author of Herd) puts it:

Unless you turn your business into a vehicle for your passions and beliefs, you’ll end up with just another Vanilla enterprise. Just another whatever it is you do. It’s not easy but, boy, is it worth it. Like the late great Ian Dury put it, “Don’t do nothing that is cut price You know what that’ll make be” Being sensible and measured and professional is all very well but it won’t make you stand out or be valuable to your customers. Just let your passions and beliefs light the way.

David Hieatt, one of my business heroes, did a great ‘top tips’ blog post on finding your voice. Here’s tip number 1:

Be Clear. Define the purpose of your company. Do this alone. Do not consult anyone but yourself. One sentence should do it. Write it on a paper napkin and pin it to the wall. Once decided upon, you cannot change it. Make sure that you are excited by it. Make sure you are willing to spend the rest of your life working towards it. Make sure it is your real purpose and not just what other people want to hear. Make sure it lives in your head and, as importantly, in your heart.

Good advice. But it can also be a barrier if you don’t feel like you’re in that place yet. If you haven’t nailed the vision in a pithy strapline; if you don’t always feel 100% motivated, passionate about what you’re doing. “What if my vision isn’t clear?”, “I’ve just got this feeling that I want to do something in this sort of direction”, “What if my dream changes direction?” And it’s easy to look at people who have built passion-powered, visionary businesses and become demoralised: “I just don’t have that level of clarity”.

So it’s useful to give some nuance to these ideals. Not because I disagree with what Mark or David wrote, but because it’s important that what they wrote remains useful advice, and doesn’t become a barrier. Here are a couple of different nuances on vision and passion, that I hope make them feel more like enablers, and less like barriers:

Often, the coherent vision only appears in retrospect

You might look at Fog Creek Software, and think that they’re all about “helping software developers be awesome at making software”. But Joel Spolsky talks about the process of finding their vision when setting out and again several years later:

In the early days, we were all about making a great place to be a software developer in New York City … The tagline was “building the company where the best software developers want to work.” It was, to say the least, awkward. It didn’t make for a good elevator pitch. It didn’t really have the right format. “Abercrombie and Fitch: building the apparel store where the hottest teenagers will want to work.” Who cares? Not the hot teenagers, I’ll tell you that.

Recently I got inspired by Kathy Sierra … She kept saying the same thing again and again: help your users be awesome. Kathy taught me that if you can’t explain your mission in the form, “We help $TYPE_OF_PERSON be awesome at $THING,” you are not going to have passionate users. What’s your tagline? Can you fit it into that template?

It took us nine years, but we finally worked out what Fog Creek Software is all about.

Sure, when you write the book about your great project, campaign or business, you want to have a nice strapline to sum it all up, but you can write that at the end; don’t sweat it too much at the beginning.

Passion is easily observed, more difficult to feel (consistently)

You’re not going to feel OMG totally whoaa!!! passionate about your thing all the time. But that’s OK, no-one does. David Allen (of GTD fame), in his Do Lecture from 2009, throws in this aside:

By the way, I think passion’s frankly over-rated. You hear passion from people who have it, but they didn’t go out to be passionate. They just got engaged in such a way that people look at them and say, well, gee, I guess that’s a really passionate thing. I think real change happens by the sometimes boring, little things you do that are sometimes the right things to do, that you start doing in a consistent way, that then create a profound effect.

The picture at the top of this post is of Yvon Chouinard, a self confessed ‘dirt-bag’ climber, who went on to build a great business, Patagonia. The story of that business is well documented in his book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.

Spread from Let My People Go Surfing

If you’re familiar with the Patagonia story, it’s easy to look at pictures of Yvon, working in his original shed, bashing out carabiners, and assume that he was totally driven by a vision; totally passionate. That with every hit of the hammer on the anvil, he was inching closer to realising his dream.

He clearly has bags of passion and vision, but I’d be willing to bet that he didn’t enjoy making every one of those caribiners, that he sometimes coasted. Patagonia certainly has lots of passionate employees — and fans. Passion and shared vision are key to their success, but they’re not everything. Doing lots of small things well — and doing them consistently — are also key.

And they’ve made mistakes, lost the path, followed fads, but they’re still here, still great. It’s only afterwards that we construct a flawless narrative with a causal inevitablility: vision + passion leads to success.

That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed an off-day; to be fed up once in a while. To change your mind, chase a different dream. Let’s not set ourselves impossible ideals to live up to. Let’s not mistake the narrative for the experience.