The Passion Economy newsletter.
An Introduction in which I hope to convince you this is a smart idea and a good newsletter to read.
I have written, tossed out, rewritten and re-tossed-out this first newsletter essay five or six times. I went for a two-hour walk in the woods, talking into my iPhone, hoping to be inspired to say just the right thing. I wrote a big essay and hated it.
And then, again, this morning, I went for another walk and decided to just write about how hard it is to write this thing. I feel anxious as I type these words right now. I so want to convince you that the Passion Economy is here and that is (mostly) good news. You can live a richer life, in every sense of that word—happier, more fun, more deeply satisfying -- and make more money doing it. I know this is true because I’ve met so many people who are doing just that. I tell their stories in my book, The Passion Economy, and my new podcast—launching today.
Yet I’m a lifelong reporter, which is to say I am a cynic and a skeptic, and I assume you might be one, too. I fear you’ll think the idea of the Passion Economy is a hopeful fantasy or a thinly-thought-through naïve platitude. I want to convince you that this is a robust idea, firmly grounded in data-backed research and economic history. It’s not my idea. (I thought, at least, I had invented the phrase, The Passion Economy, but eventually learned even that was already out there.) I’ve wanted to come up with a perfect, quick sales pitch: three or so sentences that would grab everybody, convincing them that this idea is for them and my newsletter can change their lives.
Finally, on the walk this morning, I remembered that the whole friggin’ idea of The Passion Economy is to not try to convince everybody. It is a rejection of the twentieth-century model in which success came, largely, with massive scale. Instead, this new economy is built on intimacy, on deeper connections with a smaller audience. I don’t need to convince everybody with this newsletter. I shouldn’t try to; the trying would make me water everything down, hoping to turn it into something broadly palatable and unobjectionable to all and, therefore, unlikely to excite anyone. I need—we all need, I’d argue—a smaller but more passionate audience. (Even that word, “audience,” isn’t quite right, since true Passion businesses should be built on conversations, not one-way broadcasts.)
So, I’ll be myself; I’ll write the thoughts in my head, honestly and directly. This is easier, since it’s hard to write for an imagined, idealized mass audience. But it’s also scarier, since I might discover that very few people actually like the thoughts in my head, told honestly and directly. Here we go:
The closest I’ve come to a simple, quick slogan is this: The Passion Economy combines the best of the nineteenth century with the best of the twentieth century to create something entirely new.
This is, admittedly, not a super-great slogan, since it clearly needs a lot of explanation. I’ll give the broad overview, here, and then dig into the nuances in coming editions of this newsletter.
Before, roughly, 1880, nearly all commerce was done locally, intimately. Nearly everything people bought was produced within walking distance by someone the buyer knew well. You knew your baker and your cobbler and your carpenter, and your great-grandparents probably knew their great-grandparents. Generally, only the most valuable products—luxury goods or commodity staples—traveled farther than a mule could walk in a day. Everything was familiar, intimate, fully known. If someone from a medieval village or a neighborhood in a big city went to visit somewhere miles away, they’d be struck by how weird things were—different clothes, house design, food, smells. This had advantages: Life was predictable, tied to ancient custom. And it had disadvantages: Life was predictable, tied to ancient custom. If some enterprising baker or cheesemaker had an idea for an exciting and revolutionary new approach to bread or cheese, they’d be unlikely to find enough takers in that small, local market to have much success. Instead, they’d be slapped down and told to go back to making the usual.
Then came what is called the Second Industrial Revolution, starting somewhere around 1880 in the U.S. and the U.K., and then spreading more broadly afterwards. The first industrial revolution—nobody can agree on a precise date, but 1776 is as good (and as memorable) as any other suggestion—brought a lot of new technology like steam engines and automated looms. But it didn’t fundamentally change the lives of most people. Life was still centered around farming, small villages, and intimate, local production. The Second Industrial Revolution was the one that changed it all. Suddenly, the material lives of nearly everyone were overturned. People started to see factory-made goods, produced at enormous scale by people far away. It was no longer only the very rich and aristocratic who had access to goods from far away. Broke farmers were able to buy soap and furniture and cloth, produced across continents and oceans, and transported by train and ship. And those farmers’ children got on those fast-moving trains and ships and moved to far-away cities to work in those factories, where pay—however meagre—was far better than life on the farm.
This was the age of scale. The surest way to wealth was to produce the same goods ever-more quickly and cheaply, and to sell them to more and more people, no matter how far away. Travel from New York to Montana, and every village you pass is filled with folks eating the same Hershey’s chocolates, bathing with Ivory soap, living in Montgomery Ward homes, and working their fields with McCormick reapers.
The age of scale had many advantages over the age of intimacy. When goods are produced in centralized, hyper-efficient factories and ever-larger companies compete for customers by selling at ever-lower prices, then more people get to have more stuff. For most nineteenth-century farmers (and most people in the U.S. and around the world were farmers then) this meant a dramatic increase in living standards. Food became cheaper and more abundant; clean clothing and basic hygiene were no longer luxuries of the rich. (The pitfalls of mass consumerism would, of course, appear later.)
But the age of scale meant the near-elimination of intimacy. Think of Ivory Soap, the most popular soap in America for decades. It is, to be blunt, a terrible soap. Ask a dermatologist, and they’ll tell you it’s far worse on your skin than nearly anything else on the market. Its main benefit—that it floats—comes from the fact that you’re buying as much air as soap when you get a bar. Yet, because it was easy and cheap to mass-produce and distribute, it dominated markets everywhere it was sold. Hershey’s bars are similar; they are not great chocolate -- waxy with less flavor than nearly any competitor -- yet they triumphed through mass production. That is the essence of the age of scale: everyone, everywhere consuming identical products that are not that great.
I’m guessing you have already figured out where I’m going now: The Passion Economy allows for the best of both of these worlds. We can have intimacy at scale. We can offer our weird, unique products and services that are exactly right for some people and totally wrong for others. And we can find our village, our community, even if they are spread, thinly, all over the globe.
This is a new type of economic activity. It has never existed before. It is the result of computer technology and global trade and communication networks and all of the many changes that have ripped apart the logic of the twentieth century. Like any massive change, it is good for some and terrible for others, and operates according to entirely new rules.
As mentioned above, I tell the story of this economy in a book and a podcast, so why a newsletter? In keeping with these ideas, I want a more intimate, ongoing conversation with people about the Passion Economy. I hope this will be a complement that will allow for ideas and discussions that wouldn’t work in a published book or a recorded audio show. I hope to foster and engage in discussion here. I do feel like I’ve figured some things out, but I also am well aware of how much I still need to learn and explore.
The Passion Economy, I believe, is on the scale of that second industrial revolution. It is a transformation of the core logic by which people thrive or fail, companies rise or collapse, and our everyday lives are shaped. Something that big changes everything: our livelihood, sure, but also our sense of self, our sense of the world, how we build families and careers, where we live and what we do over the course of our lives. More prosaically, it changes how prices are determined and how branding works.
We’ll get into all of that and a lot more. I do feel like I have an awful lot to say. But I’m even more excited about what you will tell me. So, for those who’ve made it this far into this essay, I hope you’ll come back.
Please do let me know what you think, what questions you have, what thoughts you’d like to share. You can leave those below in the comments or send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.