Passion is one universal key to what moves the world forward, yet our passions are the part of us that doesn’t require approval from others.  In fact, the search for prestige through work often gets in the way of our passion.  As Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham notes, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”  I think of passion as that which takes you out of your daily life, that lets you feel closest to your truest self.  Graham describes it as “what doesn’t seem like work to you?” even if it is your life’s work.

These insights led me to consider what we could learn about each other if we truly understood the passions that let us feel closest to our truest self. Passions may be simple things. I can wander around the desks in our part of the office and make guesses about the passions of my colleagues.  Sports cut across gender, geography, and type (Kansas Jayhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Nationals, the Cornell Big Red).  Some passions I know because of conversations through the years (such as our colleague who collects guitars like most of us would collect baseball caps…and yes, I do have Guitar Acquisition Syndrome envy).  We have one colleague who goes over the top with Christmas decorations, and now has a “~320 days until Christmas” sign hanging by her cubicle. Another colleague paints landscapes in his spare time. We have colleagues who take their vacations to help others in developing nations. From the staff spotlights in our office e-newsletter, I know that I can look around and see colleagues who have passions for choral music, extreme sports, food (cooking and eating), and travel.  Other passions are much more ingrained with our jobs, such as the individual who always liked math, turning that passion into programming and research work “that doesn’t feel like work.”  I have a feeling that one colleague who collects old political buttons does so with the professional eye of a collections manager.

What intrigues me is how passions define us, how we can use those passions to help  inspire our work and what passions teach us about each other. Passions are a way we tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves. We are a country that needs to understand each other in more profound ways.  Telling stories—and listening to stories—of passions is a way to build that understanding.  We can do it as individuals. We can also do that in our jobs.  And we can do that as a nation. A blogger I read on a regular basis has a passion for story-telling, and he makes the point that telling stories of passions, with passion, changed how we understand the history of what might otherwise be considered a “minor” Founding Father in Alexander Hamilton.  That happened even in the face of hundreds of statistics that tell us that we are losing our connection to our past:

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“Hamilton has had a particular impact on young people. That’s the staggering part. After 200-plus years, Alexander Hamilton is hip with the kids? How did that happen? How did Lin Manuel-Miranda and the cast of Hamilton spark teenagers’ dormant passion for history?

The answer – and it is a universal answer for anyone trying to inspire passion — is simply this: great storytelling. What Miranda did, through brilliant song-writing talent and classic Broadway theatrics, was make Hamilton’s story relatable and rebellious and fun and tragic, all those things that we so often miss in history….So much of the way history is told makes it feel bland — dates and places and all that — and this a common complaint. But we would argue that what hurts history more is the appearance of inevitability. Nothing hurts a story more than inevitability. You know the colonists won the war. You know that Hamilton helped found our nation. You know that he died in a duel.

So how can you make it feel vibrant? How can you tell these stories so that people can see and feel how unlikely an Alexander Hamilton really was, how close the colonists came to losing the Revolutionary War, how impossibly courageous decisions by deeply flawed men who often hated each other, minute by minute, made the United States of America?

This is the challenge – to help people walk among the weeds at Antietam and feel the desperation of normal people, to see the tombstone in Charles Town of the woman who lost seven sons in the Revolutionary War and carry her pain…These are stories of passion. These are stories that, when told well, can still inspire passion….In many ways, what (Lin-Manuel Miranda) did was not new at all. He pulled Hamilton from the staid pages of elementary school history books and made him flesh and blood, reminding us that the Founding Fathers were not featureless men simply destined to start a new nation. They were reckless, brilliant, flawed, brave, hypocritical, and extraordinary dreamers. History, so often, goes for the head. Lin-Manuel Miranda went for the heart.”

Passions big and small make us who we are. Working with passion and telling our stories with passion can help us bring the past into the present for today’s and future generations.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Who Tells Your Story

"Hamilton" Playbill

“Hamilton” Playbill

The full story of America can be seen, told, and appreciated at so many places and on so many levels…if one only cares to stop and listen.

Candice and I are in New York City for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.  New York is the poster child for how our rich national story is a blend from so many different people, both ordinary and extraordinary, and it is timely to be here this weekend.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among the most powerful examples of an extraordinary person who fought to ensure that the full talents, opportunities, and stories of all Americans would be supported and recognized.  In the first 24 hours in the city, we saw, heard, and thrilled to various aspects of the story that it truly American.

We are staying in Greenwich Village, which counts among its many notable former residents Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and urban activist Jane Jacobs.  Neither was seen as anything other than ordinary, until they put pen to paper, spoke truth to power, and changed the American story.

Last evening we went uptown from the village, as we were fortunate to have tickets to the extraordinary musical Hamilton, at the Richard Rogers Theatre.  And yes, to quote the reviews, it really is that good.

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, “Hamilton” is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals. And it does so by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years — rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads — have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette….But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. For one thing, they’re black or Hispanic. And when they open their mouths, the words that tumble out are a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address….And you never doubt for a second that these eclectic words don’t belong in proximity to one another. In mixing a broad range of references and rhythms in one percolating style, Mr. Miranda — who wrote the book, music and lyrics of “Hamilton,” which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography — does what rap artists have been doing for years. It’s the immoderate language of youth, ravenous and ambitious, wanting to claim and initial everything in reach as their own.

Which turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation.”

History has seldom been told in such a lively, thrilling, and “oh-so-appropriate for the moment” way.  We buzzed about the show and its meaning until well past midnight (and well past our normal bedtime), so this morning we slept in late and then walked a few blocks to the West Village for a brunch at Joseph Leonard.  Candice and I felt right at home – because other than us, all the other patrons were just about Andrew and Claire’s age!  (We joked with our waiter that we got a table because it was still before noon…and most 20-somethings were just getting out of bed on a Saturday morning.)

 As we looked out the window in this wonderful neighborhood gathering place, I realized we were at Christopher Park, and right across the street from the Stonewall Inn.

Christopher Park

Christopher Park and the Stonewall Inn


Stonewall National Monument

Stonewall National Monument

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, supported President Obama’s designation of Stonewall as the nation’s first gay-rights National Monument last year.  Because of the actions of those patrons of this ordinary-looking place back in 1969, millions of Americans gained the freedom to love the person of their own choosing, and to tell their stories proudly as part of the fabric of American life.

Hamilton at the Rogers Theatre

The crowd gathers for Hamilton, as we waited in anticipation of hearing new voices tell the American story

The last song in Hamilton “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – had such resonance with both Candice and me last evening.  Why?  Perhaps because the relevance would come up so quickly today when – at the beginning of the MLK weekend – civil rights hero John Lewis was attacked in another of the tweets which are becoming all-too-familiar, in an attempt to silence his story.  We were reminded in real time why we must stand strong in ensuring that our American story is told truthfully and fully.

More to come…