James O'Neill's Blog

April 18, 2006

Passion: or "What the hell am I doing here ? "

Filed under: About me,General musings,User Groups — jamesone111 @ 8:00 am

I’ve been on holiday for a few days. Before I went, I met a visiting school group. I was asked to talk for 10 minutes on “Why software is exciting” and – let’s be honest here – not everyone thinks it is exciting. What I could  talk about was why software excites me and why being excited matters.
One of our placement students was also meeting the school, and answering a question about desirable qualifications, he said that when he was interviewed it was more useful to talk about how he’d worked at an orphanage in Ecuador. I jumped in – it’s passion. Top of the Microsoft values list is honesty and integrity; once we’ve established that the person we’re interviewing isn’t a crook, next on the list is passion; if a candidate don’t give a damn, it doesn’t matter how well qualified they are.

My session contained 3 quotes: one was the give-a-damn meter I’ve quoted before. One was from the cover of Robert Townsend’s book “Up the Organization” my favourite book on business which I first read 25 years ago.
“If you’re not in business for fun or for profit, what the hell are you doing here ?”
Actually this is from the book’s section on excellence. “Things should be done excellently. Otherwise they won’t be profitable or fun. And if you’re not in business for fun or profit what the hell are you doing here”. But what do you need for excellence ? Passion ! If you don’t give a damn why go beyond OK ? [I must talk about Honda’s “OK factory” advert some time].
Of course we want profit and fun – you can’t really enjoy something you don’t care about – even if it is done excellently. I wanted to show how passion, fun and excellence are all linked.

My last quote was from Hugh Macleod’s “Hughtrain
“Merit can be bought. Passion can’t.
The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.”

This matters to Microsoft. We have the resources that would let us hire everyone who got a first class honours degree in computer science. That’s buying merit. We have to select for passion. It makes business sense: if you care about you’re work you’ll do it better and for less money than someone who doesn’t.

Hugh Macleod is interesting – he draws great little thumbnail cartoons and is pretty free in his use of the “f” word, but a lot of what he has to say turns on the idea that people don’t want to buy a product based on cost and benefit alone. They also want to believe in brands. That means companies have to know what they believe in, and articulate it. Like Microsoft’s current  “Potential” ads compared with the old “Agility” ones (both made for us by the same people). Like Microsoft giving some of its people (like me) time to talk about it in blogs, to schools and so on.

Macleod has got something to say on one of my other interests – why people write drivel; either they don’t have passion for what they are talking about or they can’t express it.

“Being creative” is not the hardest thing in advertising. That’s easy. Being able to write about the client’s product with conviction, with passion, with genuine humanity is far harder. Most copywriters can’t do it. If you can do it, there’s always going to be a market for it. Be excited.
Most copywriters “can’t do it” for one of three reasons:

  1. They’re hacks. Hacks cannot write. Not really write. They can futz around, make it look fancy and professional, but they cannot inject it with any resonant human spirit, for they lost all that themselves years ago.
  2. Their clients are idiots and won’t let them write properly. Any time they try to write like a human being (as opposed to a whipping-boy-for-cash) their client kills what they do and sends him back to his cube for a re-write.
  3. Fear. Also commonly known as “practicality.” It’s a competitive world out there, so to minimize risk and avoid conflict with their paymasters, they pre-emptively rid their work of any human quality, and replace it with dry, blathering, meaningless corporate-speak instead. If you do this often enough, it starts to feel normal.

I’m kind of hardcore about this. I think if you’re writing meaningless drivel, it’s your fault. You chose to work for this guy, you took his money, you cashed the check. It’s not his problem, It’s your problem. All writers are responsible for their own experience. “The client won’t let me” doesn’t cut it.
The thing to do is only work with people whose vision and character excite you.

This last sentence hadn’t registered when I spoke to the school group, I told them the same thing in my own words. “Seek outlets for Passion and work with people who share it”. That’s what I’m doing here.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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