Passion Is Work

Seth Godin had an interesting post recently challenging the notion of passion preceding the decision to commit.

“Offer me something I’m passionate about and I’ll show up with all of my energy, effort and care.”

That’s a great way to hide.

Because nothing is good enough to earn your passion before you do it. Perhaps, in concept, it’s worthy, but as soon as you closely examine the details and the pitfalls, it’s easy to decide it’s better to wait for a better offer.

We see this sort of thing manifest in any attempt people make to invest themselves in something new whether it is volunteering or new job tasks; getting audiences engage with new experiences; or people wanting a thunderbolt, love at first sight moment before dating.

Godin suggests turning it around to a place where people seek an opportunity to contribute and then passion grows from doing the work.

Work before passion measures our craft in terms of contribution, not in an idealized model of perfection.

Passion comes from feeling needed, from approaching mastery, from doing work that matters.

While this is almost an appeal to the individual not to discount an opportunity as something you aren’t passionate about, the “don’t knock it until you tried it,” argument doesn’t have a high conversion rate.

In addition to how doing work that matters strongly motivates people to work for non-profits, what immediately popped into my mind was that this might be an argument for the value of providing an participatory experience to audiences.

Just as people think that creativity is a matter of momentary inspiration gifted by an outside source or inherent genius rather than developed over a long process, it is a pretty good bet that people believe their passion is an inherent quality of themselves rather than the end result of effort and attention invested over a long period of time.

That whole bit about doing something you are passionate about and you will never have to work a day in your life evokes a sense of effortlessness. That can certainly be true if that passion is a result of short bursts of exposure/effort every day over 10-20 years. Even if you decide to fervently devote yourself to a rekindled childhood interest, the joy and groundwork laid in years past buoys you even when you are sweating toward proficiency.

It is when we feel that adding anything new is a zero sum game, where something of a current selves must be sacrificed, that we use resonance with our passion as a filter. As Godin suggests, it makes it easy to say no based on an insufficient effort by others to get us excited.

Godin’s post is more a call to the individual to change their perspective than to organizations to offer more opportunities to become involved. However, once people start looking for ways to become involved in work they feel could develop into a passion, arts organizations need to be there with opportunities to offer.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

New Study of Impact of Arts Ed On Social Skills

I frequently urge people to be careful about making statements regarding the benefits of arts on educational outcomes so I am happy when I read about some rigorously conducted studies that present some positive results. Via Dan Pink is a report on a randomized study conducted in Houston with 10548 students at 42 schools. (They actually had far more schools interested in participating than they had room to accommodate which is a positive sign for arts in education.)


…the initiative helped students in a few ways: boosting students’ compassion for their classmates, lowering discipline rates, and improving students’ scores on writing tests.


The positive effects on writing test scores, discipline, and compassion were small to moderate. Students’ disciplinary infraction rates, for instance, fell by 3.6 percentage points. But these results are particularly encouraging because the cost to schools was fairly small — about $15 per student. (This did not include costs borne by the program as whole or by the cultural institutions that donated time.)

As always, pay attention to the specific findings and degree to which the positive benefit was observed. At the same time, remember that there may have been factors external to the school environment that was negatively impacting students’ ability to take tests well, maintain self-discipline and feel compassion.

When the researchers comment on the areas in which the initiative didn’t make significant difference, they made an observation worth considering about the idea that providing arts content and testable content are mutually exclusive.

On other measures, the initiative didn’t make a clear difference. That includes reading and math scores as well as survey questions about school engagement and college aspirations. Still, the survey results were mostly positive, though largely not statistically significant.

“It could have come out negative. It could have been, look, they did this extra stuff where they learned more in these other domains but their math scores went down, so here’s the tradeoff,” said Kisida, one of the researchers. “We don’t see evidence of a tradeoff.”

That’s especially notable because some have feared that pressure to raise test scores has squeezed arts out of the curriculum in many schools (though there’s limited empirical evidence on whether that’s actually happened).

I haven’t read the full study results yet but plan to do so. In the meantime, take a look at either the summary article or the study because there are a number of other observations, including the role arts opportunities play in the social growth of students.

Art Lovers Of The World Rise Up!…Now Sit And Relax In Another Gallery

Via Arts Professional UK is a Guardian story on a study that found people under 30 in the UK are twice as likely to visit a museum or gallery each month in order to de-stress.

The charity’s report, Calm and Collected, put together last year, revealed that regularly engaging with museums and galleries contributes to a sense of wellbeing. The survey of 2,500 adults showed that under-30s tend to feel much more satisfied than older visitors.

Overall, the survey found that 65% of people under 30 had felt some level of anxiety in the previous 24 hours and that they were twice as likely as others to use monthly art visits to calm down. Yet only 6% of respondents actually visited once a month or more.

Leading sources of anxiety were worry about debt and finances, at 42%, feeling lonely, and issues around social media, at 32%

Given these survey results, the Art Fund charity decided to extend eligibility for the National Art Pass discount program to people 30 and younger. Previously, only those 26 and younger were eligible.

Readers may recall that I have previously cited John Falk who wrote about recharging as one of the five identify categories motivating people to visit museums. When I have read the piece, I always assumed that rechargers which Falk lists last was the least influential motivator. It may very well have been when he did his research prior to publishing the book in 2009. Perhaps it bears re-evaluating the experience being offered in visual arts venues to resonate more with this need. (Not to mention the hours during which it is available).

While the title of the Guardian piece is “Forget yoga, under-30s use museums and galleries to de-stress,” I have come across a few museums and galleries that offer yoga classes in their spaces so they aren’t mutually exclusive.

I was still half tempted to make the title of this post “Forget Navel Gazing, Art Gazing Is The New Way To De-stress”

Send this to a friend