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Why Your Passion Is Not Enough

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My friend is the casting director for The Hobbit. She is, as you might imagine, passionate about her work.

So you might be surprised to learn that my last conversation with her was about the limits of passion. Passion, we agreed, is not enough. Nor is enthusiasm. Or persistence. Or even good intentions.

My friend receives thousands of impassioned emails, letters and parcels making the case that 16-year-old Pierre of France is, in fact, the human incarnation of the dwarf Gloin, or that 58-year-old Ravn of Norway is the very epitome of Aragorn. She has a good idea of the power of passionate persistence.

What she also knows, however, is that passionate persistence will not get you a part in The Hobbit. Not unless you are a skilled professional actor (she does make an exception for children) represented by a reputable agent.

I've been thinking about the limits of passion lately, because I see the same question arise in humanitarian and aid work, where it takes the form of the debate about the impact of enthusiastic amateurs on the sector.

When Nick Kristof wrote about what he called the DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution, he generated substantial criticism from the aid and development sector for, amongst other things, highlighting the work of a small number of Americans at the expense of giving more coverage to "local community members helping their neighbors and themselves", as David Algoso put it in his response to Kristof, at Foreign Policy. In the words of Saundra Schimmelpfennig, at Good Intentions are Not Enough, Kristoff was perpetuating the "Whites in Shining Armor" myth.

Perhaps the strongest reaction to the article, however, came in the form of a debate about professionalism vs. amateurism in the aid sector.

Maggie Doyne, founder of the Kopila Valley Children's Home, was the cover-girl for Kristof's DIY Aid piece. But having followed her work for several years, I had doubts about whether Doyne's approach could really be called DIY, so I asked her what she made of the lable.

"More than a cover-girl for DIY Aid," she said, "I'd like to think of myself as a young woman who believes in hard work and the power of creating grassroots community driven efforts to create a better world."

I'm not arguing against passion, or dismissing the importance of perseverance. Nor am I suggesting that commentators like Kristof are ignoring completely the limits of passion, in fact in his D.I.Y Aid piece, Kristof wrote: "In short, it's complicated. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren't enough. Helping people is hard."

My point is that passion, perseverance and innovation are sometimes highlighted at the expense of professionalism. When Kristof, for example, told Maggie's story, he highlighted her youth and her passion.

"Maggie Doyne epitomizes this truth, for she began her philanthropic work as a 19-year-old financed by her baby-sitting savings. Yet she has somehow figured out how to run a sophisticated aid project in a remote area of Nepal."

He also highlights the fact that Doyne's lack of formal tertiary qualifications, describing her as "a principal who never went to college" and predicting that "she'll have an honorary doctorate before she has a B.A."

As Algoso noted, "[Kristof] focuses on the passion and indignation of his heroines while downplaying their technical abilities." In reality, Doyne has committed herself, over many years, to the study of best practice in her field.

"My experiences have given me deep insight into the complex world of development and creating social change," she explains. "I have put careful thought and planning into every action and consulted mentors, advisors, and both my Nepalese and U.S. based board of directors along the way."

Would Doyne be less of an 'amateur' if she had undertaken a Masters in Development before embarking on her project? Or if she had worked with a large INGO before starting up her own project?

At the time of Kristof's article she had been working for six years alongside local educators and education advocates to build an increasingly holistic response to the needs, not only of children in Kopila Valley, but of the community as a whole. What about that makes her an amateur?

Is it simply that she started small? And indeed remains relatively small, focusing on doing a good job over an extended period in Kopila before getting caught up in existing interest in exploring how the Kopila model might translate to other settings.

Starting small is surely no barrier to progressing professionally. As Algonso acknowledges, Paul Farmer started small, delivering health services to rural Haitian communities for years before Partners in Health became a world-renowned organization. Indeed, Doyne took her inspiration from Farmer, whose advice to Ophelia Dahl was apparently: "Let's just try to concentrate on one small area."

So, although Kristof's article proposed Maggie Doyne as the cover girl for D.I.Y. aid and the triumph of passionate amateurs over stuffy institutionalized professionalism, Doyne's approach can in fact be seen as the opposite of D.I.Y. Rather than the triumph of the individual, Kopila Valley Children's Home and School are an example of the power of local communities, with support, to come together to build solutions to their own greatest challenges.

Moreover, Doyne herself is an example of how much more than passion is needed in order to make a positive difference in the world. In her words,

"Passion lights the spark, it's what keeps you going when times get hard but in the end of the day it's your skill, ideas, hard work, and commitment that make you successful."

Just as passionate persistence without professional skills won't get you a part in The Hobbit, good intentions without professional skill won't result in doing the good you intend.

But, as Algoso noted, we all start as amateurs. So the question is not whether or not you already have all the skills you need to get that part on The Hobbit, or make a positive contribution to a social problem that moves you. The question is whether you are willing to take your passion, and your persistence, and direct them towards acquiring the skills, knowledge and collaborators you need.