I have always been shy. As a child, I learned to turn inward as a way to protect myself against an environment that I perceived to be very threatening. I saw relationships as temporary at best and full of turmoil at worst, and would frequently retreat into a personal world with a good book rather than interact with new people. I had such a severe reaction to my first day at kindergarten, for example, that my parents decided to give me a reprieve until first grade. Shyness is a survival mechanism and it helped me to navigate through some very challenging times.
For shy people like me, the Big Shift can be deeply challenging. The Big Shift suggests we are moving away from a world where stocks of knowledge and short-lived transactions are the key to success. In its place, we find a world where participation in many, diverse flows of knowledge and long-term, trust-based relationships determine success. In this new world, shy people can be at a significant disadvantage. We run the risk of becoming increasingly stressed and marginalized by the extroverts who welcome the opportunity to broaden and deepen relationships. They thrive in crowded rooms while we are deeply uncomfortable with exposing and sharing.
The need to reshape relationships
For everyone, whether shy or not, the Big Shift poses other challenges. We generally treat relationships as sources of stability in a confusing, complicated and rapidly changing world. We seek out people who share our backgrounds and experiences, those who can make us comfortable and reassure us that our ways of viewing the world are valid and enduring. Once we find these people and connect with them, we develop relationships that comfort us rather than challenge us to achieve our full potential.
The strength of these relationships also becomes a vulnerability. Lulling us into complacency, they insulate us from new perspectives and practices far more appropriate to the changing world around us.
In sharp contrast, passion holds the key to creating and shaping relationships that will help us thrive in a rapidly changing world. It motivates even the shyest of us to reach out and connect with others in ways that become catalysts for creativity and growth. Passion fosters a uniquely strong and productive bond that provides both the stability and stimulus needed to continue to grow and succeed in a constantly changing world.
1. Overcoming inhibitions
Though passionate people may be socially awkward or shy, their passion compels them to step outside of their social comfort zones to find others who share their passion and who may be able to help them reach new levels of performance.
Passion is a powerful driving force. The internal momentum it fosters gives passionate people the will and enthusiasm needed to overcome social inhibitions that otherwise discourage them from connecting with new people.
If there is any doubt about this, consider the area where the force of passion is best understood: love. The archetypal “laying it on the line” in pursuit of romantic connection is understood by even the shyest or most conservative of people. An uncomfortable or risky overture of some sort is necessary to the formation of virtually every new relationship. Each one of us has experienced the drive of passion in this way, which makes the analogy—while limited—a powerful illustration of how passion enables connection irrespective of social ability.
However, the key difference is a very important one: the relationship sought by a passionate creative (as opposed to a passionate romantic) is a means to a common end, and not an end in itself. When creatives form a productive connection based on shared passion, they feed each other’s energy and build momentum toward greater achievements than would have been possible independently—something that all talented individuals intuitively understand.
Passion plays another role here as well. In addition to motivating us to seek out others who share our passion, it becomes a beacon attracting others to us. Passionate people speak and write about their passion. They share their passion with others. They can’t help it – it is their passion after all. This makes others aware of our passion. We soon find others approaching us because of something that we wrote or said. Before we know it, even more connections are established and relationships built around these shared passions.
I found intriguing evidence of the role of passions in expanding our relationships in the Shift Index (pdf) that the Deloitte Center for the Edge published last year. This research discovered a striking correlation between the degree of passion that employees have in their work and their participation in knowledge flows of various types – measured by such proxies as participation in conferences, professional associations or social media. Passionate people are much more connected than those who indicate little passion in their work
Shy people can experience a virtuous cycle. In overcoming their inhibitions to forge these energetic connections, they find that they are indeed able to pursue their passions more effectively than if they remain isolated in their own shells. As they experience this success, they are motivated to reach out even more broadly to build expanding networks in search of new relationships with people who share their passion. Though their instincts may still encourage isolation, they yield instead to the much more powerful force of passion.
2. Come together, right now: The diversity of passionate communities
Through passion, the kind of people we connect with changes as well. Whether shy or not, we all have a tendency form bonds with people who look, believe and act as we do. Rather than helping us to overcome conventional geographic, demographic, ethnic and professional boundaries, our relationships often serve to harden and strengthen these boundaries. Romeo and Juliet’s love was so taboo because it compelled them to transcend conventional social boundaries (note that, even here, it was romantic passion that gave rise to this inspiring exception).
In times of rapid change, this tendency becomes even more pronounced. In a previous posting, I discussed the research of Bill Bishop, in his recent book, The Big Sort. He documented a sustained and significant population shift in the United States as people increasingly congregate in neighborhoods with others who share their demographic attributes, lifestyles and values. Many have worried about the polarization of society occurring in the virtual world of the Internet, while remaining relatively oblivious to the much deeper polarization occurring in the physical world.
Passion, however, is blind to social background, political beliefs (unless the passion is related to politics), experiences or lifestyles. As long as someone shares our passion and is actively engaged in pursuing it, we seek them out and welcome them into our fold. Passion brings together unlikely groupings and these communities have a tendency to create dynamic and innovative “creative spaces” not in spite of their member’s diversity, but because of it.
In Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay “On Culture and the New Sensibility,” she associates genius with the “personalities and music of the Beatles” (emphasis mine). Sontag is right in placing the cultural significance of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s personalities beside the music they made together. The individual characteristics and inter-group relations of these four passionate creatives are seared into cultural memory because of the dynamism of their distinction.
Relationships built on passion are extremely strong and often defy the incentives of traditional bond formation. When they traveled to Hamburg Germany for one of their first big gigs, The Beatles’ line-up was John, Paul, George, Stewart and Pete. With a grueling performance schedule to maintain, only the most passionate—not necessarily the most popular—would remain. Stewart quit to follow new passions, Pete was replaced by the more talented and enthusiastic Ringo, and The Beatles, as we know them, were formed.
As an exemplary passionate community, The Beatles continued to seek edges. They constantly reinvented themselves through the influence and collaboration with other passionate creatives on the edge, people as diverse as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Ravi Shankar and Yoko Ono. Though these influences had discernable impact on The Beatles as an artistic team, the most significant key to their success was the unlikely partnership between John Lennon and Paul McCartney—whose personalities, talents and sensibilities are extremely divergent and even at-odds. Yet together, they became one of the most important artistic teams of the twentieth century.
3. Growing through sustained relationships
Shared passion helps the relationships we build to strengthen and grow. While reaching out to others in expanding networks can be fruitful, one of the most important fixtures of a passion-based relationship is its want to become a rooted, stabilizing force, while at the same time challenging each of its members to “keep their end of the bargain” as an innovative contributor to the creative momentum of the bond.
In this way, passion-based relationships are not just resistant to the status quo—they are incompatible with it.
The Lennon-McCartney partnership held strong at the height of innovation throughout the tumultuous Sixties in large part because of the continuous challenge John and Paul posed to one another to grow as artists. This quasi-competitive dynamic is a fixture of most cultural, social, artistic, political and intellectual movements throughout history—where talented individuals continually set the bar higher for one another, making these relationships a source of forward-moving momentum for their passions and creativity.
But “movements” have another important characteristic: they are highly community oriented. Passionate creatives gather physically in neighborhoods, cities or districts (what Richard Florida calls “spikes” ), or maintain connection through correspondence in some form, to fortify connections with one another as community members. Think of the Harlem Renaissance, the High-Modernist Ex-Pats, the Berkeley New Left, Greenwich Village Beats and today, Silicon Valley’s digerati.
It had been the case up to very recently that this rootedness was typically imposed from without (as is the experience of many people “pushed” into the religious communities of their parents), which can be a stifling and repressive force. Conversely, passion provides a pull-based foundation for community building that liberates, for those who may feel alienated or different in traditional community settings.
In a constantly changing world of shift and flows, finding (or founding) a passion-based community may be one of the most significant factors to staying oriented, rooted, and poised to grow.
The dynamics of passionate relationships are powerful elements of success in an era of continuous instability. Passion trumps inhibition in the service of new connections; shared passion provides a foundation for diverse relationships; and these relationships provide both stability and inspire growth for its members.
This is not just theory. This perspective is deeply informed by my own personal experience. Connecting with my passion has helped me to overcome my shyness and to build a rapidly expanding network of deeply rewarding personal relationships, especially with people on a variety of edges, who have helped me to learn and grow continuously.
Over the years, I have learned that my shyness was a coping mechanism. It is not who I really am. I have come to believe that we are all passionate and social beings, but we learn to become otherwise as a result of childhood experiences. Connecting with our passion can help us to recover our natural sociability, inspire us to connect with others and grow as individuals within the dynamic and nurturing bonds of passion-based relationships.