Would you perform your job if you weren’t paid? That’s the question people are often asked to measure their passion for a profession. But, it’s not that simple.
Go one step further and really consider that statement. It’s not asking you if you would work for nothing, it’s asking you if you would pay to work in your job. By choosing to work without compensation you are incurring a direct cost for equipment, commuting expenses, education, and more. You’re also incurring an indirect expense because the time spent working prevents you from earning a salary elsewhere.
So, would you pay to work in information security? You probably wouldn’t. Does that mean you aren’t passionate about infosec? I would wager that most practitioners are not. You would pay to garden, play soccer, barbecue, or play the guitar…but you wouldn’t take a financial loss to install patches, look at packets, and change firewall rules.
But, if that’s the case then why does our industry seem to revolve around passion? Nearly every blog post you read about hiring or job-seeking discusses the importance of passion and they often provide advice for how to demonstrate it. Some advice goes so far as to highlight passion as the most important characteristic you can exhibit. Infosec is described less of a job and more as a lifestyle. This sounds a lot less like job advice and more like recruitment for a cult.
In this post, I’m going to talk about passion, myths commonly associated with it, and how the cult of passion harms the practice of information security.
Passion as a Currency
Passion is commonly equated with extreme motivation surrounding a specific topic. In its simplest form passion manifests through hard work and time spent. These are both traits that are viewed admirably, especially in the US. Working from sunrise to sunset harkens back to memories of farmers earning an honest living while providing food for the masses, or to middle-class factory workers going the extra mile to provide for their families. These images are pervasive and are the backbone of society.
Of course, hard work isn’t truly a measure of passion. The farmer isn’t always passionate about farming. He’s passionate about providing a living for his family. The factory worker doesn’t love stamping car frames for 12 hours a day, but it enables the things he or she is truly passionate about.
In truth, passion isn’t reliably measurable either, because it can only be measured relative to others. In infosec hiring, an interviewer may only see someone else as passionate if they appear to exhibit passion in the same way as them and to a greater degree. Jim speaks at 12 security conferences a year, contributes to 5 open source projects, and works 16 hours a day. These are things he finds value in and how he would quantify his own passion. He is interviewing Terry, who only speaks at one or two conferences a year, contributes to one open source project, and works about 10 hours a day. Jim is likely to see Jerry as someone who isn’t very passionate. However, this is a purely relative viewpoint. It might not also consider things that Jerry does that Jim doesn’t value as a form of passion such as mentoring less experienced practitioners or doing tech-related community service.
When you attempt to evaluate people via traits that are difficult to objectively measure (like passion), you present an opportunity for undesirable results. This is something often seen with faith in religion. A false prophet commits to lead followers to the promised land if only they demonstrate appropriate faith. That faith might be prayer, tithing 10% of your income, tithing 100% of your income, or violently killing people of opposing faith. I highlight the wide range here because it shows the extremes that can arise when your currency isn’t objectively measurable.
In information security, we use passion as an unquantifiable currency to measure the potential success of someone in our field. A common piece of advice given to someone who wants to work in information security is that it isn’t simply enough for infosec to be your job. If you want to be successful in infosec, it must be the thing that gets you up in the morning. There must be more to this.
Do You Really Mean Passion?
Psychologically, passion is either harmonious or obsessive. Vallerand describes this better than I can:
Harmonious passion originates from an autonomous internalization of the activity into one’s identity while obsessive passion emanates from a controlled internalization and comes to control the person. Through the experience of positive emotions during activity engagement that takes place on a regular and repeated basis, it is posited that harmonious passion contributes to sustained psychological well-being while preventing the experience of negative affect, psychological conflict, and ill-being. Obsessive passion is not expected to produce such positive effects and may even facilitate negative affect, conflict with other life activities, and psychological ill-being.
What do people mean when they talk about passion in infosec? Rarely is it ever defined through any other mechanism but example. If you ask most to describe someone who is passionate about information security they’ll say that these people spend copious amounts of time outside of work on infosec projects, contribute to open source, go to a lot of security conferences, are actively involved in the security community, or have a blog.
Assuming you’ve found someone who does all of those things, can you guarantee that means they are passionate about infosec? How would you be able to differentiate them from someone who is passionate about being successful, or making money, or being recognized for being an expert? Finally, how do you differentiate harmonious and obsessive passion? That is a very challenging proposition.
Passion is very difficult to attribute to a source. In fact, most people aren’t good at identifying the things they are passionate about themselves. The vast majority of security practitioners are not passionate about information security itself. Instead, they’re passionate about problem-solving, being an agent of justice, being intelligent, being seen as intelligent, actually being intelligence, solving mysteries, making a lot of money, or simply providing for their families.
In most cases, I don’t think the trait people are looking for is actually passion. Instead, they’re looking for curiosity. Curiosity has a motivational component and is often described simply as “the desire to know.” It is rooted in our ability to recognize a gap between our knowledge on a topic and the amount of available knowledge out there. When we recognize that gap, we make a subconscious gamble about the risk/reward of pursuing the knowledge and eventually decide to try and close the gap or not. This is called information gap theory, and through this theory we can gain a better understanding of trait and applied curiosity that can improve our ability to teach and hire people.
Diverging from Cult Mentality
Passion has its place. I know some people who truly are passionate about the practice of security, and they are among the top practitioners in our field. However, it is unwise to constantly compare yourselves to these people. I offer the following:
For information security practitioners…
Hard work matters, but you can work hard and not allow this industry to pull you into the cult of passion. Choose where and how you spend your time so that your work enriches your personal life, and enjoy a personal life that enriches your work. If you fall victim to the thought that information security must be your life, you will eventually burn out. You will suffer, and if there is anybody left around you, they will suffer too.
Here are professions of people who work 8-10 hours a day and go home and don’t think about work: doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, researchers. Do the top 5% of practitioners in these fields think about work all the time? Probably. But you also probably aren’t one of those people. Not everyone is extraordinary and that’s okay. There is this myth that we all must be the best. As Ricky Bobby famously said, “If you ain’t first, your last!”. But, by constantly trying to be the best it breeds things like imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and depression. In an industry where so many have substance abuse problems and we’ve lost far too many friends, these are feelings we should actively avoid promoting.
For hiring managers…
It isn’t just limiting to only hire people who make infosec their life, it’s exclusionary. You’re missing out on people with diversity of interests that will enrich your security program. You’re also preventing people who have more important personal life issues from finding gainful employment.
To pursue the knowledge that exists in the curiosity information gap I discussed earlier, a person should be aware the gap exists. Otherwise, they don’t know what they don’t know. This implies that a job candidate needs to know a little about a topic to be strongly motivated to pursue knowledge in it and sustain that pursuit. The last part is important. Sure, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but that first step is also usually the easiest. It’s quite a few miles in where we normally lose people. This is one reason why the notion of trying to hire TRULY entry level people based on passion in infosec is a fool’s errand. Someone with no experience in this field does not have a proper footing to be passionate about it. If they are passionate about infosec, then that passion can’t be trusted to be sustained. You’re hiring based on a mirage.
A key to maintaining interest is a constant stream of novel information. For a novice, most things within a field can be novel because the key is to building passion is exploration. To transition to expertise, an individual must find novelty in the nuance of specific topics. Someone who enjoys nuance is best set up to be an expert. Most people will never truly be world-class experts in something, but again, that’s perfectly fine.
For job seekers…
Much to my dismay, most people will never read this article, truly understand passion, and cultivate an ability to notice genuine curiosity. That means you have to play the game that is hiring. People will keep asking about passion, but reframe the question under your own terms. Tell them you see passion as a term used to describe curiosity and motivation. Try to identify what really motivates you and how your curiosity pushes to toward goals. Relate to people at a personal, human level. A lot of candidates talk about how they eat/breathe/sleep infosec. You don’t have to do that. Instead, talk about how you critically think about important problems and optimize your time so that you don’t have to be work 16 hour days to be successful. Hard work is important, but working smart is much more important, and is actually sustainable.
Along my pursuit to understand passion I’ve learned that it’s a highly contentious topic. People hate to have their passion questioned, and I’m sure this article will stoke that fire. I wonder why that is? I would wager that many quantify their own ability and maybe even their own self-worth in their subjective self-evaluation of their own passion. Once again, passion is a good thing and measuring yourself based on some degree of it is probably fine. It’s when we choose to measure others based on our subjective views of their passion that we get into trouble and create cult-like scenarios. We can do better.
My goal with this article was to share my understanding of passion, how it’s often misinterpreted, and how that can negatively affect our industry. Once of the most liberating moments of my life was when I figured out that I wasn’t passionate about information security, it was just infosec that allowed me to achieve other things I was passionate about. If others can relate then I hope they can feel the same liberation someday through a better understand of passion. If you are truly passionate about infosec itself, then that’s great too, we need you!