Reminders about Passion, Growth and Purpose from Performing Arts Academy

This weekend we attended a fundraiser gala for Performing Arts Academy (PAA) Colorado, a performing-arts non-profit focussed on creating community, building character, inspiring excellence while practicing inclusivity. The PAA program has grown from 20+ students and 3 teachers in 2006 to 900+ students and 35 teachers in 2019. In the context of this growth, I was struck by a few observations around passion, leadership and purpose.

Educators and people that work daily with children and in servant-leadership roles understand and practice these observations almost innately. However those of us in tech, especially remote tech-workers, could use a reminder.

Passion and Purpose

The event space was filled with passion. Passion for PAA was evident in the students that spoke and performed, the parents of those students, the supporters and the staff including Production and Site Manager, Sam Leahy and the Executive Director, Dr. James Ramsey. However, the most palpable passion was not for performance of music or theater or arts. The most palpable passion was for the impact that PAA has had on individual people’s’ lives. 

Dr. Ramsey used his time not to talk up the numbers or financials or growth rates, but to instead share a story of one child who was in a production being hosted at a school. This student was restless, lacked focus and had a difficult time keeping his hands to himself. The student did not seem to want to be in the production and acted as if he expected to be kicked out.

Upon speaking with the student’s mom, the staffed learned he did in fact very much want to be there and she asked if PAA could somehow help make it happen. Dr. Ramsey and his staff took the time to personally meet with the school staff and the mom. They learned more about the student’s background and desires, spoke with him to set expectations and found a place in the show that would work for him. Dr. Ramsey personally checked in with the student every rehearsal. The student was able to participate and gained a new sense of confidence and well-being. He simply needed to know that there were adults in his life that cared and listened and expected him to be able to excel. 

The many hours and extra effort spent working with this one child had little to do with musicianship or acting skills. It had everything to do with listening and being noticed and setting expectations creating an impact much larger than arts instruction itself. Leaders often think primarily of their and their team’s technical skills, however a leader’s purpose is well beyond that.

Dr. Ramsey and the staff of PAA have a passion for performance. However their purpose is to leverage that passion into positive impact beyond themselves. 

Growth and Purpose

That one kid didn’t directly matter when it came to the program’s growth. That one student’s experience was not going to result in X number of new students signing up the next season. Dr. Ramsey and Sam Leahy spent time with that one kid because of their sense of purpose.

The thing is though that the program has grown precisely because of they ways they work with students one at a time, where they are and with who they are. When students talk of PAA, they don’t talk about musicianship or artistry. They talk about confidence, friendships and intangibles that will be with them for a lifetime. The community’s desire for these intangibles is manifest in PAA’s growth.

Considering one definition of purpose is a “sense of direction, core values, and connection with something beyond yourself” here are some thoughts not often exhibited in the tech bubble.

  1. Growth with purpose takes time, sometimes years sometimes decades.
  2. While leaders love dashboards and scoreboards, a fulfilled sense of purpose is not measurable. In our growth-for-growth’s sake industry it’s so easy – for the tech community especially – to turn everything into metrics, processes and A/B tests. This in itself is not bad. It becomes bad when we forget that a healthy definition of purpose includes a connection with something beyond yourself and is likely not measured by streaks, apps or likes.
  3. You may be a musician or a software developer or an executive leader, however that is not your purpose. Your purpose is what you do with your musicianship or your software development skills or your leadership experience. 

Metrics, processes and A/B tests can be useful for running a company and organizations do require positive cash-flow to remain in operation. However let’s not pretend that the metrics, processes and A/B testing that identify people as users or which rank them by their customer lifetime value have a purpose beyond profit.

Sometimes it takes jumping out of the tech and startup bubble to be reminded of this more healthy vision of purpose.