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Passion is infectious.

Tens of thousands of Mac enthusiasts converged on San Francisco for MacWorld this week, and my health insurance should cover my trip there. Why?

Because being around passionate, enthusiastic people is good for your brain.

In his book The New Brain, neurologist Richard Restak points out that your brain has a built-in tendency toward modeling/mimicking those you are around. That's scary, when you think about it. It means that hanging out with the whiners and complainers at the water cooler (not to mention those overly critical, judgemental, negative neighbors, friends, and family members) will tend to make you behave like them.

His suggestions are that you seek out and spend more time around those whose brains you like (and want to BE like) and avoid those with attitudes and behaviors that you don't want for yourself. That sounds a bit harsh, but it's the result of, well, a loooooooong evolution of the brain. Our survival as a species was based on the ability of babies and children being able to emulate others, and your brain can't tell the difference between those you don't want to be like (but are around) and those you do. You control it by getting the hell out of there.

You've probably experienced this--you sit around a group of people whining and complaining (without any attempt to problem-solve) and pretty soon you find two things:
1) You start feeling your energy slipping
2) You start subtly acting more like them.

You might find yourself saying something and immediately thinking, "I can't believe I just SAID that!"

It's just your brain doing what brains do.

But think about the people you know who make you feel... energized. Enthusiastic. Excited. Passionate. Think of the times you've let someone else's enthusiasm sweep you away. Of course you might later come to your senses and realize, for example, that you don't actually need the new iPod Shuffle, seeing as how you already own two other iPods.

The point is, being swept away with enthusiasm is good for your brain and your health.

The implication is this:

If you want to create passionate users, spend time around passionate users.

Even better, spend time around others who are also trying to inspire passion in others. There's plenty of brain research that explains why you should surround yourself with passionate, energetic people and stay away from the, "This job would be great if it weren't for the frickin' USERS" people. If you want to be more creative, spend time around more creative people. Better problem solving? Spend time with those who spend more time looking for solutions than complaining about problems.

Want to change the world? Spend time around people who want to change the world. That's exactly what Tuesday night was like when O'Reilly held a party for the new book Eric mentioned, Andy Hertzfeld's Revolution in the Valley. Most of the original Macintosh creators/developers were there including Andy, Bill Atkinson, and others... even Wozniak was there. Now, I've spent too much time in Hollywood to be impressed by the company of "celebrities", but these folks--they did change the world. And more importantly, from the brain's perspective, they knew it. It was their goal.

I was there with Bert, the O'Reilly folks, and Mac gurus Tom Negrino and Dori Smith (of backupbrain blog fame, among other things), and we all agreed that we were hoping some of what was going on in that room, with all those change-the-world Mac creators would rub off on us.

Just being in the room was enough to get you high.

(Then again, it could have been the beer... the Thirsty Bear, where the party was held, makes an outrageously good "Golden Vanilla" brew. I don't drink alcohol more than about twice a year, so...it kicks my ass when I do!)

If you would excuse yourself from a setting where there was too much second-hand smoke, then you should do the same thing when there's too much of an attitude or behavior that you don't want your brain to slide into. And don't fall into the trap of thinking you have complete control over this--it's extremely difficult to prevent something your brain spent millions of years evolving to do.

And next time someone tries to strap you into the, say, golf appreciation chair, let them. They might not ever succeed, but just being around someone trying to evangelize for their favorite sport, game, drink, whatever... is usually good for you.

Of course nobody has yet succeeded in making ME a golf convert, but for the sake of being around more passion, I say bring it on. : )

Posted by Kathy on January 14, 2005 | Permalink


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"...spend time around others who are also trying to inspire passion in others" or at least read their
blogs I would add :-)

Welcome back!

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 14, 2005 3:47:14 PM

I'd also like to spend time around 50's era housewives who know how to spell "terabyte"!

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Jan 15, 2005 1:26:02 AM

The following might fall out of tune with respect to what the blog covers. But more than once, in our team we find ourselves having a problem and facing a blank screen or blankly facing a screen. Although sitting physically close (not to close please:-) each on her/his own desk) no synaptic activity can be traced, at least none that manages to solve the problem in front of us. Then if we ask someone just to sit and have a look, the mere presence seems to be enough. It's like some dormient competitive spirit awakes from nowhere saying "see I can do it!", on the other hand if the problem is tough for both the feeling is better than it was in the first place "we both couldn't solve it" it's shared.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 15, 2005 2:15:51 AM

Jeff: "I'd also like to spend time around 50's era housewives who know how to spell "terabyte"

And thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, they suddenly do!
Thanks, Jeff : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 15, 2005 11:03:14 AM

Gian Franco--you make a great point, and it definitely fits in with what we talk about here, especially because it brings up a few points about the brain. For one thing, just talking about an issue aloud triggers different activity in the brain, and sometimes that's enough to help you see something new, so explaining a problem to someone else often helps you solve it. (Some programmers know this as the "teddy bear" technique, where if you don't have a person to talk to, just explaining it to a stuffed animal or pet can still help you). But also when your brain gets stuck looking at something in one particular way, another person will come from a slightly different angle, and even a subtle shift in perspective can open the door to seeing something new.

I think you just gave me another blog topic : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 15, 2005 11:08:37 AM

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