On farmers and laborers

Passion versus career

I’m talking to a young developer. After two years in the organization she’s proven herself to be a monster talent. You cannot get anyone to say a bad word about her coding ability, her creativity, or her throughput.

And she’s unhappy.

“I’m not passionate about code. I don’t go home and work on coding projects. ”

So I told her about the difference between farmers and laborers.

I was working on compiling the family tree last year, and that meant reading a lot of old Census records. Up until the turn of the 20th century, my ancestors’ listed occupations on the Census were generally one of two jobs: Farmer and laborer.

My great-great-great grandmother, Louisiana Poole, was a farmer in rural Lousiana. My great-grandfather wrote that “she kept the farm going during the Civil War…. Plowed 1/2 days on 1 cup of ‘bran coffee,’ made of roasted bran from cornmeal.” She was known as a character, tough as nails, had five kids, and lived to 87.

Up my mother’s side of the family you encounter farm laborers. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Robert Franklin Rowark, was such a laborer in the fields of North Carolina. He married Susanna when she was 15, sired my great-great-great grandmother Mary Ann, then… apparently took off to seek his fortune in the California gold fields and never came back.

The difference between farmers and laborers is simple: Ownership. A farmer relies on his or her land to live, to survive. They will be up all night worrying about rain, or aphids, or sick livestock. They have a full vested interest in their farm. A laborer, on the other hand, does their job on the farm and heads home at the end of the day. Whether they’re plowing or picking crops, it may be hard work, but the farm is merely a job for them. Their main concern is whether they’ll get paid. Whether it rains or whether the livestock are well is only a concern to them if it’s in their purview, whether they will get paid.

There’s nothing wrong with being a laborer. You can be a craftsman and still be a laborer. It has nothing to do with talent, skill, or ability. It is all mindset. And we need labor. Farmers need laborers. IT entrepreneurs need developers. Plane makers need machinists and engineers.

But I think, in a time when “do what you love” has become such a catchphrase in the tech world, and a time when “passion” is something we’re told to seek out in jobs, we’ve lost sight of the difference between farming and laboring.

Never labor your passion. Only farm it. Passion is something you should own, and it’s something you should worry about over and over again.

If you’re good at something, for example, a craftsperson at code, then you should do it. But if it’s not your passion, then it should only be a job, not a farm. And you have to accept that this is OK.

The young developer I was talking to was a great coder in the making. But the mistake they made was thinking that you need passion to be a great coder. You don’t. You only need to be a great coder. You can turn in 40 hours of great Java a week, then go home and work on the things you’re far more passionate about. The money from being a great coder can help fund that passion, perhaps even bootstrap a new career around that passion.

That is, you can use your money as a laborer to buy your own farm.

If you don’t own the farm, you should not act as if you do.

I have problems with the “Do what you love” sentiment. It gainsays so much about the true nature of labor — that it is for survival first, capital second, passion third. Passion is a nice thing to go for if your survival and capital are guaranteed, that you can eat, that you can afford a roof over your head. But a lot of us have had shitty jobs, will have shitty jobs, and for some people, shitty jobs are all they’ll ever know.

Our focus should instead be on working through survival and capital towards passion. You want to be a designer, but you’re not good at it? Learn. Find jobs where you can learn. But don’t worry about finding that right design job when your skills may lie in other vocations. Use those vocations to work your way towards being a great designer. And along the way, those other vocations may teach you a ton about how to be a great designer. After all, our “soft skills” — communication, negotiation, playing nice with others— contribute as much, if not more to our abilities as the “hard skills” every vocation demands.

One of the best design minds I’ve known was a Java developer. Someone who could have easily been a rock star interaction designer if he chose to be. But he loved to code far more. So he made himself into a front-end Java developer and built design skills on top of those. He’ll never be anywhere near UX, but he was a developer I could trust with great ideas and great execution, two things experience designers dream of in a collaborative developer. And along the way, he made everyone better.

Instead of focusing on doing what you love, focus on doing what you do best. And use that to work towards doing what you love. But don’t deny your talents in the name of an empty bromide of the tech world. Too many people make too little money wasting their time worrying about “doing what they love” when they could be spending that time asking, “How can I get myself to a place where my passion aligns with my career?”