Cafe Witness

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What Drives You?

I've been creating Something to Be Desired, a web series in Pittsburgh, for four years. It's been the driving force in my life, the project I worked to build from scratch to something. It's a work in progress, and it remains so. But lately, I've been looking at the world through a larger lens.

Last September, I attended PodCamp in Boston, and then Video on the Net. The energy and cameraderie created by those two social experiences inspired me to host another PodCamp in Pittsburgh in November. The cumulative effect of all those conversations energized me in a way I've been missing, essentially, since college.

The Last Great Ride

In college, I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a new (at the time) major: computer animation. Very few of us who signed on for the major knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into, but the majority of us were drawn in by one of two factors:

- it was new
- it was guaranteed to have a high post-graduation placement rate

Excitement and the thrill of the unknown. Stability and a steady income. When has humankind NOT been driven by one of those two basic urges?

I wound up in a highly-motivated group of students. Many of use were non-traditional and looking for something more from our college experience than we'd been able to achieve in high school. We made a pact to kick each other into gear if we felt the other guy was slipping, slacking or failing to live up to his potential. And we acted on that pact, each of us motivating one another, both by example and by encouragement, to accomplish what we'd set out to do. We even elevated our actions above the classroom, working with the school to improve student conditions and student life, because simply excelling in the classroom "wasn't enough."

We were motivated by communication, by cameraderie, by a need to improve upon the existing situations in both our personal lives and the life around us.

Sound familiar?

College 2.0

The thrill of the unknown in new media creation, the uncertainty, the "zing" -- that's what drives ALL of us who are in this space right now. There IS no stability. There IS no steady income, and any of us who are happily earning a living while working in this space are doing so knowing that the winds may shift at any time. There's no blueprint for success. There are no rules, except those which we impose on ourselves.

The key rule to follow -- in fact, the ONLY rule worth following, besides basic human courtesy -- is to DO something.

In college, we learned by action. Fortunately we were required to do so, because I suspect that, if left to our own devices, many of us would have pontificated until the sun came up and never actually put pen to paper or finger to mouse until it was too late and all the great ideas had been fully explored.

Now, in the new media landscape, we're still strongly urged to act in order to succeed. Every one of us has dozens of ideas about what MIGHT work in this new space, but very few of us have any hard facts about what DOES work.


So the only way we can ALL learn is by taking action and sharing the results.

Except... none of us wants to do "busy work." We all want to do something that MATTERS to us. We want to do something we can't WAIT to get back to every morning.

Some of us have found it. Others think they have, but eventually find that their interests or tastes have changed. What they're working on now may not be fulfilling them the same way it did when they started. Or they may have more clearly realized what it is they'd RATHER be doing.

How do you know if what you're doing now is what you WANT to be doing? And, more importantly, what DO you want to be doing?

Primal Clues

When I was a kid, my favorite aisle in a store was the stationery. The promise of all those notebooks and blank pages, waiting to be filled, excited me. I love telling stories. I love making lists. I love organizing and keeping track and sorting and ranking all sorts of otherwise clerical things. But what I love most, in the end, is learning. I love being a repository of knowledge, and then I love putting that knowledge into action.

During our hiatus from STBD, I've been thinking about the bigger picture in new media, and in my personal life. What used to drive me, the thrill of production, doesn't do the trick anymore. So I've been trying to discern what gives me the biggest emotional charge in my life, what actions or situations I'm most drawn to, and why.

- I love conversations
- I love creating and building ideas
- I love creative problem solving
- I love moving the conversation / situation forward
- I love new experiences and new people

All of this is larger than my existing role as the creator of STBD. It involves not just creative storytelling, but also interpersonal communication and creative solutions to existing challenges. It leads me to a whole new direction in where I want to go with my life and what I want to do along the way -- not drastically different from what I've been doing, but essentially MORE than what I've been doing.

The Classroom STILL Isn't Enough

In college, we realized we were capable of more than simply excelling in class. (It sounds haughty, I know, but we were more interested in maximizing our potential than in worrying about how we were perceived. It still applies today. Ask my friends.)

To that end, we drafted a manifesto outlining the changes we wanted to see made in the way the students, faculty and staff interacted. We identified all of the problems we could see, and offered suggestions for change. We sent the manifesto to the Dean, which resulted in a sit-down meeting among several students, faculty and staff. In the end, many of our ideas were put into action, and we helped shepherd them through to fruition.

Now, as I look around the new media "campus," in which I am a willing participant, I see again dozens of things that could be changed or improved. I see actions that, if taken, could result in widespread change to the way we all interact, the way we do business, the way we communicate our ideas and make connections with one another.

What I don't have yet is a manifesto.

Modern Clues

When I surf the web, I find I'm drawn to marketing blogs and productivity blogs. I love stumbling upon new sites that offer useful, practical, hands-on sevices or social networking, but then I feel I don't have the time to explore those sites. That's frustrating because what I REALLY want to do is figure out how those sites work and, more specifically, how they could work for me and for others. I love being a repository of knowledge, and then I love putting that knowledge into action.

My interests in life change, but my driving passions remain the same.

What are your passions? Are you letting them drive you?


  • Your recent posts here and on the STBD blog are absolutely compelling, even though they don't apply to my life at all. Your passion comes across in your writing; hopefully we will see more of that in the new STBD episodes.

    By Blogger Dani In NC, at 6:34 PM  

  • Ten Inch,

    First of all kudos for the well thought out and articulate summary of the old college days and our purpose and motivation behind our calling at the time.

    As much as we can't deny that job placement and the allure of it being fresh was there - I would say that we were all there because we all wanted to "Create something" - and not just artistically, but our core friendships all shared the desire to create something that was more important than us. A tangible impact that would last long after we were gone.

    While you feel that this energy is growing inside you again, I really don't think that any of that ever really changed for me. The passion and idealism that I felt thru that time never faded or changed. Instead, what happened was that the process and the methods that we used (and perhaps just myself in particular) we're provacative, neive and abrasive and I was changed... My inexperience and immaturaty created roadblocks and opposition along the way and it really prevented us from creating all the alliances that we could. Therefore, what ended up happening with myself in particular was that the extreme levels of frustration and stuborness that I was feeling and the indifference that others felt toward what we tried to do dramatically changed the environment so that it while it did reflect many of our goals, it actually became something for me that "offended me" in a way... many of the relationships that I made early on actually turned sour and I went from "project" to "project" for the past 7 years - each time trying to create something from nothing and I was continually conscious and aware of the experiences that I learned thru our period in college.

    All of that is to say that I still have that enthusiasm for the process of creating something as important as our projects, our relationships, families and companies. Depending on where you draw the line I have been involved in 4 start up companies, and have actually been deliberately constantly moving closer and closer to the new and emerging markets. The opportunities and the ideas that you have before you are not unique, but what is unique is when someone puts those ideas into ACTION, and how simple, meaningful and approachable you make the finished product.

    For example, when you look at online video sites (I will be deliberately vague and unspecific here due to relationships I have) there are hundreds and hundreds of websites out there, but why will someone use yours? What will they get out of it? Is it easy enough for your grandma to use it? Are there ideas that you, or your team, or the marketplace has that you could implement in order to make it better? - Why are certain sites better than others - it is obviously due to the content that they provide, and how they relate to the users and content uploaders.

    The secret as I see it is that those relationship, and the small - maybe even intangiable elements of those successful products create a PASSION in the CUSTOMER. the passion is no longer just residing in the CEO or founder of the company.. but in the best examples it has filtered into all of the employees and the customers of that company. That is what excites me. Generating that enthusiasm in my employees. Creating it in my Family. In my Customers, and that feeds me and it feeds the products that I create. When there is that great idea, and that goal that we share. When we can get a team together and work towards it together there is an energy that is there and a hope and confidence that we can accomplish anything.

    Thats what I felt back then, and thats what I love feeling today.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:01 PM  

  • GREAT post.

    LOVE your new direction.

    My passion is helping to improve people's lives who have very little opp to do so themselves. Thus we moved to Africa. (We're returning to the States in June, as fulfilling that passion is too overwhelming, here.)

    By Blogger paulmerrill, at 4:14 AM  

  • Dani and Paul - thanks for the compliments! Hopefully I can continue to move more conversations in this direction.

    Chris - thanks for checking in. I had a feeling you might see our college experience differently than I did. I think we all started from the same point and then, as in life, we each got something different out of the experience.

    For me, the thrill of waking up every day and not knowing what was going to happen, but expecting that it was going to be something invigorating and exciting, filled with possibility, is what drove me in college. I attribute that to the people I was surrounded with, and the situations their assocation -- and the personal challenges involved -- led me to.

    I'm glad to hear you've continued to raise the flag of PASSION. You're right: it's the one element of life that can't be fabricated or sold. It's also what separates a good idea, or a comfortable life, from one that electrifies.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 12:13 PM  

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