Demystifying Passion

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Find your passion. That’s the phrase most commencement speakers tell anxious graduates. It’s what career guides spend entire chapters on, and what advice columns rehash with “shoulds” and exclamation marks. When someone asks “What do you do” at a party, admitting that you don’t really like your job is like admitting you’re a failure. You didn’t live up to that commencement speaker’s advice. You didn’t make your dream “happen”. So most people tell a polite narrative about their work and then reach for the appetizer tray.

In a “find your passion” culture, I want to propose something radical: the basic assumption that our passion is somewhere in us, that we only need to look hard enough, long enough to find it, is wrong. If they’re honest, most people who actually are “living their passion” will tell you that it took them a long time to get to that point. And that it involved a lot more than simply “finding” it.

What is “passion”? I tend to think of it as something a person does to receive positive feedback, a sense of purpose and connectedness to the larger world. The call to “find” your passion makes it seem like passion is located in a nook or cranny somewhere inside of you. You just have to dig deep enough to discover it.  But really, how many people are just born with a passion that gives rise to positive feedback, a sense of purpose and connectedness in the world? Mozart and Michael Jackson aside, not many. Instead of “finding” a passion, perhaps we should concentrate on developing one.

And developing a passion takes time. And moments of failure. And endurance. Most Boots know, or at least come to know this. And at DBC, a lot of the staff’s work goes into addressing their negative perceptions of “failure”, reframing students’ expectations of success, and supporting their willingness to engage with problems that make them feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Because when coding, it’s hard to tell a student to be passionate about something they might initially fail at 90% of the time, or see no immediate result. If “finding” passion is thought of in terms of particular skills or tasks, most people will reject challenging work out of insecurity about their “inherent” abilities.

When Boots come to DBC, I don’t think it’s passion for coding that’s most important. Instead, it’s a much broader passion for personal and intellectual growth is the most critical requirement. And the foresight and openness to engage in something that may not be immediately rewarding (at least according to the performance-based model of “success” taught in most school and workplaces). If the DBC staff do their job well, a passion for coding will follow in the long-term.

First and foremost, DBC tries to create an environment in which students can feel safe throughout the process of engaging in challenges, pushing limits, working together. And through “Engineering Empathy” workshops, the staff essentially try to get students to shed attitudes toward learning that many have held on for 16+ years. Instead, of measuring “successful learning” by grades, the staff work hard to measure a student’s learning by her individual and interpersonal growth.

DBC’s role is essentially to help students grow and develop their passion. What DBC does is provide an environment where it’s safe to fail. DBC tries to engineer a learning environment where, in fact, failure is celebrated as an opportunity to learn. Passion isn’t there ready to simply be picked up and fired. If passion is to last, it requires more than searching for and finding it. Like any long-lasting love, it requires attentive care, dedication, and patience.

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