Passion is exploitable

In The Moderately Enthusiastic Programmer, Avdi Grimm is worried about a growing trend amongst software companies looking to hire programmers. He writes:

“But when I look at job adverts demanding ‘passion’ I get a little involuntary shiver. I remember needing a job. These are the kinds of job ads I’d be looking at, if I needed one again. And that makes me feel threatened, because they are looking for something I’m not sure I can give them.”

Such job ads have a fundamental similarity to Nigerian scam letters — you know the kind: “25 MILLION US dollars await in deposit to be transferred to your overseas account”… Those letters are well known for their clumsy and overwrought language, but it’s no accident. The language acts as a filter: if you’re rational enough to consider the form of the letter while reading it, you’re not the person that the scammer wants to attract anyway. They want you to develop an emotional attachment that they can manipulate, so that you’ll eventually send all your money to Nigeria. The job ads pointed out by Avdi Grimm are seeking a similarly irrational motivation on part of the employee.

Passion is an emotionally driven mental state that overrides reason. When you’re passionate, you’re not being rational. This is illustrated in expressions like “passionately in love” and “in the heat of passion”. Passion is the catalyst that sees people abandon their families, gamble away everything, commit manslaughter.

When an employer writes:

“We seek passionate software developers”

They really mean:

“We seek someone who cares so much about programming in itself that he/she will make irrational decisions to our advantage”.

In other words, the employer wants someone exploitable. Working for someone is always a trade. Because of the power dynamic, involving an emotional component like “passion” will make it unbalanced. The company gives you the means to express your burning desire for creating software, and in return you will work “passionately” — that is, disregarding reason.

Video game studios have a long history of this kind of exploitation. It’s an industry that attracts young people who love the products since early childhood and have long dreamed of making games themselves. The initial enthusiasm sees them happily doing overtime, and then comes “crunch time”: a long period of overtime and unreasonable demands which will slowly turn excitement into grinding anxiety… But the worker is emotionally committed to the project and won’t just walk away. (Electronic Arts famously paid $15 million in 2006 to settle a lawsuit which was sparked by an anonymous blogpost written under the pen name “EA widow”.)

This problem spans a wide range of creative or highly competitive professions. It’s not a question of salary: a musical production will pay relatively little, a marketing company will pay more, and a well-funded startup may reward its stars with excellent perks, yet any of these can be a workplace built on exploiting passion. Telltale symptoms include unpaid interns, chains of short contracts, and early employees without meaningful equity (in the case of startups).

This is a fairly new twist on employee exploitation. The 19th century industrial worker was not passionate about making steel or textiles. The employer exploited her basic need to survive, and this could be effectively combated by legislation and unionization.

Under Stalinism, those who claimed to fight against exploitation became the exploiters themselves. Their ideologues did in fact invent a prototypal form of the passionate industrial worker, The Hero of Socialist Labor… But this was always more of a fantasy than a real-world occurrence.

Yet governments have a history of being much more adept than companies at using people’s passions against themselves. If you’re going to ask a million young men to risk death in war for an ill-defined goal, it greatly helps if you can incite their patriotism into a genuine passion. World War I was the outcome of infectious passion inflamed by miscalculating reason.

Today such lofty, larger-than-myself passions are out of fashion. The postmodern worker is expected to be a creative individualist shaping out her own niche in the world. This is why companies rather than governments have become the harvesters of passion.

In the process, passion has become docile and domesticated. In 1914, the Kaiser and the French Republic wanted a violent manifestation of your passion: you were expected to kill someone, anyone, again and again, as long as they were on the other side. In 2014, the Bay startup and the Omaha marketing agency just want you to sit at a desk for 12 hours a day and produce stuff onto a computer screen. It’s passion stripped of its fundamental emotional basis.

The solution is to bring back the inherent unpredictability of passionate acts. If the company expects you to be passionate, do it consistently. Swear at the stupid client. Fall in love, drink and roam the town all night, show up to work at 1 pm. Quit your job to work on your photo-sharing startup. Start horseback riding and BASE jumping.

Individually you’ll pay a price. But when you’re unemployed, alcoholic, lying alone in a hospital bed with two broken legs, you’ll find comfort in the certain knowledge that you did it for the greater good. As soon as everyone does what you did, it will become the equivalent of a trade union for passionate people — employers will know what to expect when they put that fateful word “passion” in a job ad.

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