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How To Thrive In The New 'Passion Economy'

"The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century" by  Adam Davidson. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)
"The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century" by  Adam Davidson. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)

The economy is changing — and writer Adam Davidson says that means we need to change the way we think about work.

Davidson wants people to embrace what he calls the “passion economy.” In his book published Tuesday, “The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century,” the New Yorker writer explains how this economy creates opportunities for people to use unique skills and interests to create new kinds of businesses and find fulfilling careers.

“It’s an economy that can feel very terrifying — that is ripping up a lot of the logic that undergirded this sort of industrial-scale economy of the 20th century and has caused a lot of disruption, a lot of fear, a lot of real pain,” he says, “but that this new economic system offers a lot of opportunities, too.”

A former NPR international business and economics reporter and co-founder of podcast Planet Money, Davidson spent years reporting on the painful side of economic transition. While he saw many people experience agony and confusion, he says he also realized some “regular people” were finding ways to thrive.

During the 20th century, the economy was built on mass manufacturing goods to sell around the world as cheap and fast as possible. That economy still exists, he says, but the internet created a new space unlike any that has existed before.

Online, people can find a niche base of customers that’s “uniquely theirs” instead of focusing on scaling their business, he says. This can mean selling crafts on Etsy, but also pursuing professions like engineering, he says.

This new economy allows people with specialties ranging from making chocolate to accounting are finding consumers around the world who want exactly what they provide, he says.

“In the book, I tell a lot of stories of sort of regular everyday folks who have cracked this nut,” he says. “And none of them are the kind of people who are ‘born on third base and think they hit a triple’ kind of folks who often make up a lot of business success stories.”

For example, he tells the story of Braun Brush Co. — a company founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 1875 that initially manufactured brushes for cleaning milk bottles. Before the industrial era, founder Emanuel Braun could only deliver his innovation to customers in Brooklyn and Queens.

Over time, his children expanded the company into a modern manufacturer that mass-produced different kinds of brushes to clean pizza ovens and spread chocolate on pastries. But like many businesses in the U.S., cheaper imports from China hurt Braun’s sales, he says. That’s until Braun’s great-grandson, Lance Cheney, brought the company back to its original idea of creating custom brushes for people with hyper-specific needs.

Now, the company sells NASA lightweight, reliable brushes used to clean debris off rocks so the Mars Rover can take clear photos of them, he says. Cheney also invented a new brush that makes it cheaper and safer to inspect the insides of nuclear power plants, he says.

“By focusing on the really specific needs of people who desperately need a new kind of brush or many of them don’t even know they need a brush — they have a problem and he [Cheney] solves that problem — he’s able to thrive in a way that nobody in his family ever did,” he says. “He stops making a brush the second a Chinese manufacturer starts making it and he moves on to something new.”

That’s a good ground rule for thriving in the passion economy — stay focused on what customers need and let others mass-produce old products, he says.

When it comes to pricing goods and services, Davidson recommends ignoring what everyone else is charging and asking customers to pay what it’s worth. Engage with customers to figure out how they value what you’re selling, he says.

“What I’m arguing is that if you find a passion and you hone that passion and you find an audience that also craves whatever it is you make, that you can find people who are going to be willing to pay money that makes it worth producing that good,” he says.

Though he thinks more Americans can join the passion economy, Davidson acknowledges that not everyone can be passionate about their work.

He’s mindful that people with a college education are more set up to thrive, he says. Even so, workers without degrees can start by picking a workplace that allows them a position that adds unique value to the business, he says.

And with the right changes, fast food companies can make workers excited about their jobs, he writes. Some companies like Sweet Green are catching on to the economic benefits of invigorating a passionate workforce, he says.

“This is not a book about geniuses who went to Harvard and used their dad’s money to start a business,” he says. “These are regular folks — many of them grew up either poor or lower middle class or working class — who figured some things out.”

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

Book Excerpt: ‘The Passion Economy’

When I think about the change in the economy, the change that has shifted the United States and most of the rest of the world from one sort of economic system to an entirely different one, I think about my dad and my grandfather and how hard it was for them to understand each other.

My father’s father, Stanley, was born in 1917 and died a century later, still a tall, proud man with a thick head of hair that was naturally black until his last decade. Stanley looked to me like Superman: strong chin, chest pushed forward, posture erect. He didn’t have time for frivolity. He was a serious man who did serious work. With his young grandchildren, he had a routine: a firm handshake followed by a gift of a twenty-dollar bill and some vague homily about doing good work, after which we were dismissed. I cannot remember ever speaking to him when I was young; I only recall smiling, shaking hands, and rushing off. When I became an adult and, to his surprise and mine, a reporter covering economics, I was able to talk with him about the one topic he truly loved: business.

My dad (also named Stanley, though he has always gone by his middle name, Jack) could not be more different. He is an actor who, for as long as I can remember, has told me that the most wonderful part of his profession is that you remain child- like your entire life. As I write this, my dad is eighty-three and has maintained an imaginative, exuberant view of the world. He is riveted by children and loves to hear every word my young son says, after which he calls out, “Did you hear that? He made up an amazing story!” My dad has always been fascinated by pretty much everything—science, the news, art, history, sports. There is only one subject he has always found unbearably boring, perhaps a bit evil, and entirely unworthy of discussion: business.

In a sense, this book is a reconciliation of the conflict between these two Stanleys, these two men who lived in the same country at the same time but might as well have been on entirely different planets. For most of the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of men and women were forced to make a choice when it came to work: follow the money or follow their passion; become like my grandfather or become like my dad. But now, more than ever before, business and art, profit and passion, are linked. They have come together in a way that would have made no sense to either of the Stanleys in the past.

To illuminate the transition, I describe and celebrate in this book, let me tell you more about my grandfather, since he is a pretty representative stand-in for the entire twentieth- century economy. Stanley Jacob Davidson, Sr., was born in New England to young parents who were cut off from their own families. His father was a Jewish immigrant whose parents had disowned him—even practiced mourning rituals as if he had died—when he impregnated and then married a Christian dance-hall girl. The dance-hall girl was, herself, alienated from her family—a rough clan barely eking out a living in a remote corner of Maine. The new broke and broken family in Worcester, Massachusetts, faced unending crises, culminating in Stanley’s father’s death of tuberculosis when my grandfather was only five. His mother, overwhelmed, put Stanley and his brother in an orphanage for much of a year before taking them out again with the provision that, even as grade schoolers, they would need to work and bring money to the family. Decades later, Stanley was still prouder of his childhood business (he bought hens, built an incubator, and sold eggs to neighbors) than of anything else he would go on to accomplish in his life.

Before he was twenty, while the Great Depression was ravaging the country’s economy, Stanley was married with a young son (my dad), soon to be followed by three more children. He was lucky to get a factory job that paid sixteen dollars a week. The factory made external grinders: large machines that spin two parallel cylinders of metal, coated with an abrasive, sandpaper-like surface. The cylinders could grind a metal cube into a perfectly smooth sphere in seconds. This is how ball bearings are made. It was brutal, dangerous work. This was the era of big men in blue overalls working in hot factories dodging sparks, their bodies covered in a mix of sweat and grease. For those who worked alongside Stanley, the tiny particles of metal dust made coughing and sneezing a sharp, painful, often bloody agony.

But overall, the ball bearing business was good for Stanley, especially with the start of World War II. “You can’t fight a war without ball bearings,” Stanley used to say. And it’s true. Every moving piece on every war machine—the tires, the guns, the gun turrets, the tank treads, the tank rifles—moves because it has ball bearings at its joints. Stanley worked two shifts a day, often six days a week.

The postwar economic boom was even better for the ball bearing business and for Stanley. America had a lot of building to do—the interstate highway system; suburbs filled with houses, roads, and sewers; cities that grew much bigger; factories getting larger and more efficient—and every bit of building required ball bearings. They were in the wheels and gears of tractors and cranes and the machinery inside the factories and in the elevators and escalators in those tall buildings.

Stanley worked hard and was promoted, again and again, and eventually ran the factory. He was smart and good at strategic thinking. But his core management ability was that he was tough. He saw a factory floor as a machine and each man (it was almost entirely men) as a cog in that machinery. They could be annoying cogs, always complaining about this or that, but a strong manager knew how to shut their complaining down and get them back to work.

Did Stanley love ball bearings? Did he have a particular passion about them? No, he most certainly did not. He got the job because his father-in-law knew a guy, and he stayed in the job because that’s what you did when you had a job: you stayed and tried to get promoted. He retired after fifty-four years, having worked at the same company his entire adult life.

Every moment of his life reinforced the same lesson: hard work is how people take care of their loved ones, how countries stay free, how life improves for everybody. Stop working, even for a moment, and everything will fall apart. He worked. His wife took care of the kids. And those kids barely knew the man who was rarely at home and, when there, was often angry and impatient. My dad says he had no idea what Stanley did for a living, only that whatever it was seemed awful.

From an early age, my dad had passions. He loved telling stories; he loved making people laugh; he loved daydreaming about a life much more fun and expansive than the grim, plodding one of his father. In the Worcester of the 1940s, a boy like Jack—a bright but indifferent student who cracked jokes and hung out with friends instead of working—could be assessed only one way: he was trouble. He would either be tamed or become a lifelong loser: broke, drunk, maybe in prison. My father internalized this view. He drank and smoked and got into fights and was suspended a dozen times before the principal expelled him. When Stanley learned of the expulsion, he told my dad that he could no longer live at home. He washed his hands of him.

My dad was on his own, working at a shoe factory, at sixteen. It was miserably boring work, nailing heels onto shoes one after the other, all day long. He can remember saying to himself, “My life is over. Already.” His father, it seemed, had been right. Men who follow their passions go nowhere. My dad certainly couldn’t think of any grown man he had met who had successfully built a life of fun and personal expression. That was for wealthy people and drunks.

Over the next several years, my dad had a series of unlikely experiences that led to precisely the life he wanted. He joined the marines, thinking it would transform him into the man his father wanted him to be. After his discharge, he managed to get into the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He didn’t do well and was about to flunk out when a friend asked for a favor. The friend was putting on a play in the school’s theater department, and one of the actors had pulled out at the last minute. Could Jack, please, fill in? It was an easy role: my dad just needed to act like he was drunk and lurch across the stage. His first step in front of the curtain drew a huge laugh from the audience, and that was that. My dad had found his life’s work. He would be an actor. He had never met a professional actor. He had never seen a play. But he transferred to Boston University and entered the theater school.

For Stanley, the announcement of this career was absurd, enraging. Why not be a butterfly chaser or a unicorn rider? An actor? You’re going to pretend that you are someone else for a living? You’re going to play dress-up as a job? That is not what a man does. A man works, for money, and then uses that money to pay for a home for his wife and children. Who ever told you work was supposed to be fun? Who is going to pay you? Actors make no money. They don’t get regular paychecks. They are not men.

My dad nonetheless pursued his dream and has been a working actor for almost sixty years. We were never rich, and there were some worrisome months here and there, but for the most part, he made enough of a living to raise two children in New York City. We understood—because he told us all the time—that he had made a conscious choice to pursue his passion, his dream, instead of pursuing money. And he would say he did that to be a good father, to be a model for his children, to show them that they, too, could pursue their passions and their dreams, even if they were never going to get rich or, at times, maintain financial stability at all.

We lived in Westbeth Artists Housing, a building in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. It was created in 1970, the year of my birth, by a group of philanthropists and the federal government to offer subsidized housing for artists. It’s still there—my dad lives in the same apartment I grew up in—and houses about one thousand people: painters and dancers and poets and musicians and actors, other artists and their families who pay rent far below the market rate. It is a special place, a community of people doing, roughly, the very opposite of what Stanley believed was right.

When I began my adult life in the 1990s, I believed the stories the two Stanleys told. I believed that I had a choice to make: money or passion, financial comfort or fulfillment. It made sense. That was the economic reality of the previous hundred years and a message I had received over and over. I wanted to be a playwright, but I also wanted more financial stability than that life could offer. So I took what felt like a middle-ground job: I became a journalist. I could write and learn, travel and explore. But I could also get a paycheck and have a retirement account and all those sensible things. Growing up in artists’ housing in the 1970s, I had heard from grown-ups that every- thing is worthy of exploration—sex and drugs and personal expression. There was only one area of inquiry to be avoided: money. Money was the opposite of art, the opposite of passion. So I rebelled in, perhaps, the only way I could. I became an economics reporter, covering business, finance, markets, and other forbidden topics.

As I learned how the economy works, I came to under- stand the world of my Stanleys with even more rigor. There is a clear economic logic to the twentieth-century triumph of ball bearings over acting. Ball bearings are a fundamental product, necessary for almost all other economic activity. They don’t require passion or invention. A ball bearing in 1999 had the same essential function as a ball bearing in 1919. The difference was that companies had gotten better at making more of them more quickly and cheaply and reliably. That was the heart of my grandfather’s career: removing inefficiencies so that the same thing could be made more cheaply and overseeing research and development so that the products became ever so slightly better each year. That was, in fact, the heart of the twentieth-century economy. Economists call it production-side growth, which means that most companies, most of the time, made their profit by cutting the cost of production.

This efficiency extended to the ways our economic goods spread around the country and the world. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most markets were local; most people bought things made nearby. But with the expansion of rail and then the highway system and then commercial air travel and the hyper efficiency of containerized shipping, markets became national and, eventually, global. Increasing trade across state and then national boundaries meant that one ball bearing maker could sell ball bearings all over the world and would have to compete with other ball bearing makers all over the world, so everybody worked even harder to become even more efficient at making the same thing more quickly and cheaply. If a worker proved an ability to do this routine work and to spot inefficiencies and get rid of them, that worker would make a better living. That’s what my grandfather did. The widget economy excluded people like my dad. A factory can’t be efficient if each worker is pursuing a distinct passionate view of how best to work. The economic logic fed our culture and our educational system. People who followed the rules and accommodated the needs of a large organization thrived; those who didn’t, failed.

Of course, there have always been passionate outsiders like my dad. A few of them did remarkably well. Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Marlon Brando, and Joan Rivers, for instance, were able to pursue their own passions, be unrelentingly themselves, and still thrive economically. But, tellingly, they succeeded through a very widgetized distribution system. The music and television industries had a lot in common with ball bearings. They transformed creative work into mass production, distributing the work to as many people as possible at the lowest production cost.

Most creative, passion-fueled people lived lives roughly equivalent to my dad’s. He spent most of his career on the stage, performing roles in relatively small theaters off-Broadway or at various regional stage companies around the country. It is a rough way to make a living, traveling from job to job, going to auditions, getting rejected, hoping a casting person says yes. Even when you get work, it doesn’t pay a lot. Live theater isn’t scalable in the way that a television show is. Performing on a stage in front of real people is intimate, personal, and, at its best, incredibly passionate. But it can reach only those physically present. (His income was sporadic, although there were enough big paydays from movies, commercials, and the occasional Broadway show or guest spot on a television program that, as I said earlier, we never suffered. Still, he was an exception. Few of the actors he started with are acting today. When he went to the fifty-year reunion for the Boston University School of Theatre class of 1963, he learned he was the only graduate there still making his living from acting.)

My father and his father had an uneasy relationship for most of my life. Each man looked at the other with pity and disappointment, and they rarely spoke or spent time together. I became a bit of a translator. I understood both worlds— business and art, responsibility and passion—well enough that I could talk with both men and feel proud of both of them, even if they had succeeded in such radically different ways. But they never really understood each other. How could they?

Excerpted from THE PASSION ECONOMY by Adam Davidson. Copyright © 2020 by Adam Davidson. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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