1. Thoughts from the Zeitgeist

The Economic Upside of Passion

#22 Work On What You Love

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

At first glance, the advice to “work on what you love” feels a little soft — less like a design principle and more like an inspirational poster in a recruiting office. But the more we think about this principle, the more it’s evident that it should be directed not only to individuals seeking employment, but also to managers and clients looking to optimize their teams.

Companies that want to attract and keep the best talent need to seek out opportunities for their people to contribute to the assignments they’ll find most stimulating. In the brand experience category, we need to arrange it so that gear-heads and auto enthusiasts can work on car shows, foodies support the trade shows for restaurants and food science,  and gamers work on the related tech conferences.

“This might be the most important principle of all,” Bruce says, “because it lets us align talent and energy behind the right opportunity. You want alignment between talent, communities and opportunities — things you can contribute the most to.”

The benefits of this approach to assigning work become exponential when we consider what it means to clients. Imagine a medical association putting a job out to bid that involves strategy and content development. They know they will have to get the new agency team up to speed on everything ranging from government regulations to the obscure scientific issues that are top-of-mind with their target audiences. But when they have the option of working with someone who already has a passion for the medical field — has a ten-year jump on the newbie — they actually save time and money. This is equally true for any event with esoteric appeal. By engaging with people who have a passion for a category, brand or community, there is a much greater chance of finding a new innovation, a new way to be relevant, or a new way to disrupt that marketplace. From this perspective, it’s easy to see that by aligning your people behind brands they feel passionate about, your value to the client is much, much higher.

The beauty of having the kind of scale we do at Freeman is that we serve clients whose expertise runs the full spectrum of business sectors, educational or political causes, and fan-based events. We just need to get better at finding ways to let people raise their hands and say, “I want to work on that — I love that.”

We recently put this to the test by sending one of our senior creative executives to China to help launch a car account for which he had a lifetime’s passion and several collectible models. He walked in knowing the brand’s rich design history, the technical details of each model, and how to lean into its legacy to charm potential buyers. After the event, one of the brand’s largest dealers called our client to tell him it was the best event the factory had every done. Our client was ecstatic — and so was our “brand ambassador,” who contributed so much.

“That’s why we want to organize around sectors,” says Bruce. “The culture of our client — it’s so valuable to us, we can’t overstate it.  It means we understand the language of their culture and immediately add value.”

How does this principle apply to young people who aren’t lucky enough to find employment in their chosen field? Bruce points to advice that the actor Alec Baldwin wished he’d given his 20-year-old self, “try not to need money ‘til you’re in your 30s.” The point is, focus on your craft when you’re young, not on fame or fortune.

While the idea is a bit poetic, Bruce notes that as a much younger person trying to launch his career, he lived like an impoverished student so that he could focus his energy on doing great design work, regardless of pay. He likened working on what he loves to sending out a beacon to the like-minded design-thinkers he felt destined to learn from and work with – people who were also seeking him. “I knew that any time I compromised my work, it would be harder for them to find me…” Bruce explains.  “I found those people…. And it’s only possible because I did that. For me, that’s what working on what you love means.”

If working on what you love puts you in the path of other people working on what they love, the potential for collaborating on satisfying work is huge. For business leaders, it means tapping the passion of your people and aligning it behind your customers’ brands. Creating opportunities for employees to work on what they love creates new possibilities to connect people in meaningful ways and inspire massive change.

That’s what I love about my work.