For a long time now I’ve had a habit of railing about “incompetence.” People who were “incompetent” made no sense to me. How could you consistently underperform at a task without improving? Last week, I realized I’ve been thinking about it entirely the wrong way. It’s not incompetence per se that upsets me, it’s carelessness. People who don’t care about things are completely inscrutable to me. How do you live if you don’t care? What gets you up in the morning if things don’t matter to you? Passion is what drives me day in and day out. Doesn’t it drive everybody?

I don’t think I’m alone in the software world when I say that. Most of the great developers I know are driven by passion, and when I asked on OnStartups Answers “What drives you?” a lot of people came back with passion. It seems to be a common theme, from Getting Real to education, that people who are passionate are more successful. My confusion of carelessness with incompetence wasn’t completely wrong: people who are passionate improve over time. People who aren’t can be comfortable staying at the same level of ability without significant improvement. Over time the two groups diverge, with the passionate people getting better and better.

I think software engineering runs the risk of losing the passionate people. What I love most about the Ruby community is its consistent theme of passion and experimentation. We have great characters like _why (or hadhim) and fun frameworks like Sinatra, where the web server tells you that “Sinatra has left the stage (applause).” Ruby people are clearly passionate about what they do, and that makes me feel like I’ve found my people. Passion drives me, and passionate people make sense to me. No wonder Ruby has so quickly become my favorite language to code in.

It’s hard to get passionate about something you’re no good at. Every time I’ve gone into a new field and tried to learn it, there’s a period I call bootstrapping. I know so little about the topic that I struggle even to figure out what I should be learning, much less actually learning it. It’s often not very fun, and I’m rarely that passionate about it. Getting over that hump, though, is so worth it. When you’re just starting out, you may not be passionate, but you’re not going to get there without caring.