As I've become more engaged on the topic of passion, I've been thinking about the inevitable question: what is my passion? How would I characterize it? How has it evolved over time? As I reflected on these questions, I developed some real insight about the essence of my passion, so I thought I would share it in case it might help others to explore and understand their passion.
One of my earliest memories is a fascination with tractors and construction equipment. On weekends, my parents knew that nothing would make me happier than taking me to a construction site where large equipment sat idle and where I could clamber over the equipment and imagine that I was manipulating the equipment to build some incredible edifice. Forget about toy tractors. I wanted the real thing – it got me very excited to sit in the seat of a large bulldozer.
What was that all about? I would not have been very articulate at the time, but even at this early stage I was passionate about potential and possibility – especially very large scale potential and possibility. In my mind’s eye, I could see extraordinarily intricate buildings with graceful curves rising from the barren ground, providing inviting places for people to work and live. There was so much possibility in that ground. The potential was there to be tapped. I didn’t just want to passively observe the construction process – I wanted to be at the helm of the massive equipment required to release that potential.
When I got a bit older, I discovered school. Rather than possibility and potential, I saw boredom and barriers. So I broke out. I was almost expelled from third grade because I had taken to forging notes from my mother asking me to be released from class so that I could go to doctor’s appointments. I developed a reputation among the school staff as a very sickly child.
In fact, what I was doing was venturing out on the streets of Caracas, Venezuela (where we lived at the time) to explore the incredible sights and sounds of a complex city. What drew me into the streets was a fascination with the diversity of the people drawn to the large city in search of opportunity. I saw very different possibilities in my travel through the streets. I didn’t want to just read about these possibilities or even observe them through a car window. I wanted to be on the streets, experiencing these possibilities firsthand. My adventures came to an unexpected end when, one day, my mother showed up earlier than usual at the school and was told by a puzzled administrator that she thought I was with her at the doctor’s office.
As a child, I lived in a different country virtually every year. It was an extraordinary experience – I saw so many different cultures and lifestyles that I developed a deep appreciation for the potential and broad possibilities available to people as they strived to make a difference. I developed a deep curiosity about how people lived and the different cultures they developed to help them connect and draw on the strengths of others. I now badgered my parents to go exploring on weekends, venturing out to the countryside and remote towns, eager to absorb all the possibilities around me. If we were on a highway and there was an opportunity to take a smaller, less direct road, I would always vote for the back roads.
As I headed into high school, I discovered economics. Not the dull, static economics of equilibrium and ceteris paribus, but the much more tumultuous economics of entrepreneurship and creative destruction. Hayek, Mises and Schumpeter excited my imagination with the power of markets to tap into local knowledge, coordinate activity across vast distances and unleash innovation from unexpected quarters to challenge entrenched interests and create opportunity for a whole new set of players.
This was really exciting. Markets could scale much better than even the most ambitious construction project. Markets were far more diverse and dynamic than any individual city or even national culture. They offered rich opportunities to develop new potential and harness a growing array of possibilities. I was hooked. Once again, I didn’t just want to read about these markets. I wanted to get into those markets and participate in building businesses that could unleash greater and greater potential.
I ended up in management consulting. I loved the opportunity to engage with a large number of diverse people and tackle really big opportunities for innovation and growth. I became more and more focused on strategy consulting. It offered an opportunity to help companies explore new possibilities in terms of growth and innovation and ultimately to achieve their potential more fully.
I left my first consulting job at BCG to launch a computer startup. This was the catalyst for my move to California and particularly to Silicon Valley. It also provided a deep immersion into information technology, a field where, as an economic history major, I had precious little exposure. Once again, I was hooked. I discovered that information technology was an incredibly dynamic domain, constantly generating new capabilities that could amplify our potential as human beings. It offered me a new set of tools to help others to achieve their potential and expand their array of possibilities.
I ultimately returned to strategy consulting, though, because I found startup life far too all consuming. I had significant impact on my immediate surroundings, but I wanted more. I wanted to reach out and connect to far more people.
As I moved back into consulting, I discovered the power of writing and speaking to large groups. I could have far more impact on the potential and possibility of others through writing than I could ever hope to achieve through one on one consulting. I began to write about the intersection of business strategy and information technology and especially the new opportunities created at this intersection.
The passion path
As I step back and reflect on this evolution of my passion over time, I begin to see a common theme. At one level, my passions could not be more diverse – construction, international life, economics and technology. But they have all been focused on one quest – how to participate in ways to scale potential and possibility for others. Each time I have shifted focus, it has been to find a way to scale potential and possibility even more effectively so that I could broaden my impact. From a single construction site to an individual city or country to a global economy to an increasingly powerful global engine for amplifying reach and richness of relationships, my passion has led me on a journey of expanding horizons.
My passion has not shifted – it has evolved, with previous generations of passion still living on – I still engage in my earlier passions. Think of them as geological sediments that still live on and support the passion layers above.
Passions can evolve significantly over a lifetime, yet they often display a common theme that knits together various stages of development. My own personal passion trajectory illustrates this progression.
The personal path
Something interesting also happened along the way. My passion has always been about scaling potential and possibility for others. Over time, I began to find that pursuing my passion opened up more potential and possibility for me as well. I began life as a very shy individual with few deep relationships. As I have pursued my passion, I felt an increasingly compelling need not just to observe and understand but to make more and more contributions of my own. In the process, I have been able to overcome my natural shyness (not entirely, but to a far greater degree than I would have imagined possible).
Initially, I found an outlet in writing that allowed me to express myself and contribute from the safety of my study, without having to take on too much of the perceived risk in personal relationships. I found that I got a lot of positive feedback from my writing. The efforts of many who have read my work to reach out and connect in person helped motivate me to overcome my natural instinct to stay in my study. I have built a rich and growing network of relationships with those who share my passion.
What is your passion trajectory? Has your passion remained constant? Can you define a common theme tying together the various strands of passion that you may have pursued over your life?
[I covered a briefer version of this passion trajectory in my talk earlier this year at the Business Innovation Factory Summit in Providence, Rhode Island]