While at dinner in 2006, Tim O'Reilly said something I'll never forget:
"Someone once told me that if you see a parade, get in front of it."
The analogy has continued to resonate with me. What does it mean to get in front of a parade? Why not just join in? Why not just watch from the sidelines, trying to understand the meaning of the march? What if there is already a parade conductor?
I'm certain that if not taken too literally, taking the leadership of the parade is analogous to being a catalyst. That person who, through their passion, drive and desire to change something in the world is instrumental in guiding a movement - not controlling, not truly 'leading', but driving it forward with all of their passion.
I see this all of the time with other people. In developer networks, it is probably newbies who are the most enthusiastic, running in all directions, wanting to help in whatever way possible and taking up the cause with a vengance. Sure, newbies can be a bit irritating, but it is necessary to continually inject that enthusiasm into communities, encouraging the desire to lead the parade forward in order to keep the momentum. It requires the alums to sit back and let go of ego, merely educating any passionate newcomer as to the history of the project. Never discouraging.
Lately, I've found myself cringing when I tell people I'm in marketing. I'm not. As Shel said over on his blog:
...I worked with Tara over at Riya during pre-launch times. I have to admit she often befuddled me by declaring she could best serve Riya by just hanging out in the blogging community she so clearly loved. In fact, I was among those who suspected she loved the blogging community more than Riya itself.
Now I get the power to Riya of Tara's loyalty to the blogosphere. At the time, bloggers were a primary community to efficiently spread word of mouth. Through Tara's efforts, millions of people became aware of and enthusiastic about Riya's recognition technology. They trusted and knew Tara first and her personal brand proved transferable onto Riya.
There was no Riya parade. I wasn't about to start one. That's traditional marketing. Trying to drum up a parade of your own usually leads to a pretty lame parade without any rhythm section. I mean, think of the meaning behind parades. Usually people march for a cause or a celebration or to remember something significant. Marching around for a product that will line someone else's pockets with cash ain't a cause that anyone wants to get behind (except for those who are lining their pockets with cash).
No, the way to do it is to see what people are already starting to gather around. With Riya, it was a combination of being buried in digital photos and the future of security. I saw microformats as being a possible solution to standard language for images online so that people could have portability. I met with Greg Elin regarding his work on Fotonotes. I wrote a great deal about the issue of security (or lives online and the implications of this as well as digital identity). I continue to be part of all of these parades and have even followed Greg's work to Sunlight Labs, which I've also picked up a baton for.
Citizen Agency? Like there is a parade to be had there. Heh. Citizen Agency is a company that jumps in front of many parades, whose higher purpose is to shift the power back to the hands of individuals...to teach a new paradigm: people are worth more than money.
Shel is right in saying that is a very difficult message to deliver. But you know what? It's a great parade to jump in front of and we are marching onwards with a growing number of conductors, catalysts, bands, clowns and acrobats. The parade isn't about CA nor was it started by us, it's about wider issues that growing numbers of people are extremely passionate about. And yes, we want to lead because we don't want to see it taken down the wrong street...right back into profits-over-people-land.
And guess what? We are making a living at it AND doing what we love. Novel concept.
So, there you go...if you see a parade, get in front of it. That is what being part of the community you serve is all about. That is how you find your higher purpose. And that is where you will find your mojo.