in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #491: Everything You Know About Passion is Wrong

“Passion” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot in the last few decades. People have a vague notion that passion is a very good thing, and that they want to find it in their work and lives. But beyond passion as a buzzword, its realities are actually very little discussed and seldom well understood.

My guests today have set out to correct this deficit in their new book: The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life. Their names are Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, and I had them on the show last year to discuss their book Peak Performance. Today, we talk about the parts of passion that rarely get talked about: that it has both a positive and a negative side, how the advice to “find your passion” isn’t very useful, and the 3 things you need to really grow your passion. We also discuss why going all-in on your passion too early can lead to long-term failure, how passion can lead individuals to cheat to get and stay ahead, and why embracing the 6 pillars of the “mastery mindset” can help negate the negative side of passion, and harness its positive powers. We end our conversation discussing how it’s okay to have an unbalanced life, and what to do if you can no longer do the thing you’re passionate about or you simply stop being passionate about your work.

Show Highlights

  • Why passion is a paradox 
  • The two types of passion 
  • What happens in our brain when we feel passion?
  • The fine line between obsessive passion and “good” passion, and how much context matters
  • How can you recognize possible passions? How can you move past inevitable adversity and not give up right away?
  • The 3 keys to a fulfilling job/task 
  • Why going all-in on a passion right from the start is a bad idea 
  • How even positive passion can go awry 
  • How do you balance getting the benefits of goals without leaning on them too hard?
  • The “mastery mindset” and its 6 pillars 
  • Why process is so much more important than outcomes 
  • Why it’s okay, and even desirable, to have unbalanced periods in life 
  • How burnout happens, even with our passions 
  • What happens when you can no longer do the thing your passionate about?
  • What about when passion fades on its own? 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

The passion paradox book cover by Brad Stukberg.

Connect With Brad and Steve

Brad on Twitter & Brad’s website

Steve on Twitter & Steve’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Passion is a word that’s been thrown around a lot these last few decades. People have a vague notion that passion is a very good thing and that they’re supposed to find it in their work and lives. But beyond passion as a buzzword, its realities are actually very little discussed and seldomly well-understood. My guests today have set out to correct this deficit in their new book, The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All-In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life. Their names are Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. I had them on the show last year to discuss their book Peak Performance.

Today we talk about the parts of passion that really get talked about. It has both a positive and a negative side, how to advice to find your passion isn’t very useful, and the three things you need to really grow your passion. We also discuss why going all in on your passion too early can lead to long-term failure, how passion can lead individuals to cheat to get and stay ahead, and why embracing the six pillars of the mastery mindset can help negate the negative sides of passion and to harness its positive powers. We end our conversation discussing how it’s okay to have an unbalanced life, and what you can do if you can no longer do the thing you’re passionate about when you simply stop being passionate about your work. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Brad Stulberg, Steve Magness, welcome back to the show.

Brad Stulberg: Thank so much for having us. We love the show, so it’s great to be back.

Brett McKay: So, you guys got a new book out. Last time we talked about peak performance and why even in the mental game, work performance or, rest is important to recover. We talked about the stress adaptation recovery process. Even our mental game. This one is about passion, which gets a lot of talk on the inter webs. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. You guys take a very nuanced look at it. So, let’s talk about, Brad, how is this book The Passion Paradox, how is this book a continuation of what you guys started in your first book?

Brad Stulberg: So, the first book was, as you said, really about what are the core principles required to achieve and sustain peak performance? So, none of the hacks that are going to make you feel really good for a few days and then you get bored or you burn out, but much more what are the fundamental foundational pillars that a whole career and lifetime of performing really well can rest on? And what Steve and I realized at the end of that book was that there was this stone that we left uncovered, almost because it was too big of a stone. It needs its own book. And that’s the book that we ended up writing, which is Passion.

Nearly all the peak performers that we interviewed for the book, the individuals that we coach both in business and in athletics, the vast majority of them have this inability to feel content. It’s like a drive that is a never-ending well. And this drive is often celebrated, but this drive can also lead to all kinds of problems. And when Steve and I started looking at the research on passion, what we found is that the word currently is used in a very positive connotation. Fine, follow your passion, and everything else will be blissful. You’ll have a great life.

But tracing the word back, it wasn’t always like that. At first, the etymology of passion comes from pasio which means to suffer. And The Passion Paradox, the title of the book, is just that, that while passion can be a wonderful life energizing force, a gift that can help propel you to great things, if you’re not careful, it could also become a curse. And sometimes being passionate can feel like both things at once.

Brett McKay: So, that’s the passion paradox then?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, it’s a gift and a curse.

Brett McKay: Well I mean, Steve, as I say, people talk a lot about passion sort of, you read entrepreneur books, you’re going for your dreams. But like, I feel like when people talk about passion in this positive way that they typically talk about, like they’re saying different things. So, what does that positive passion look like?

Steve Magness: Yeah. So, what we found in our research is exactly that, that there’s two types of passion, almost like a positive and a negative. But in research world, they call is obsessive and harmonious. Like the positive side is when you’re doing an activity, you’re pursuing an activity or a job because you enjoy that activity in and of itself. Right? When your goal becomes the path and the path becomes the goal, kind of. I think the biggest thing is you have control over it. On the negative side, the obsessive side, what happens is you start pursing that activity for external rewards, for validation. You almost become like blind to any sort of downfall or negative impact that it could have on you. And the way I like to separate it is it’s almost like that passion becomes a controller. So, it’s no longer you’re pursuing this because you want to. It’s almost like you’re pursuing it because you have to.

Brett McKay: So, speaking to that point, you guys talk about some of the biology and psychology that goes on whenever we feel passionate, both in that positive and negative sense. So, like Brad, what goes on? What goes on in our brain and in our physiology whenever we feel like that positive passion?

Brad Stulberg: So, what’s interesting is that when we feel the positive passion or the negative passion, what’s happening in the brain is actually quite similar, and that is there’s a enormous release of the neurochemical dopamine. And that is the neurochemical of desire. So, it’s not so much associated with the achievement of a reward, but it’s associated with the pursuit of an award. It is also the neurochemical that is implicated in lots of addictions. So, another really interesting thing that came up on the nuance of this topic is that passion resembles addiction in so many ways. The definition of addiction is the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences.

Now if you’re training for the Olympics, or if you’re an entrepreneur starting a company where you know the odds are 99% against you, that can often feel like the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences, at least despite negative probabilities. There’s also quite a strong linkage between the feeling of passion and mental illness. An example that I always like to use is if you think of an Olympic swimmer who is spending six to eight hours a day staring at a line in a pool, and if they miss a workout, they become very anxious about the fact that they missed a workout. There are stories of Olympians that when they’re traveling, they’re waking up at 2:00 in the morning because they have to get their workout in. That’s very similar to obsessive compulsive disorder where the obsession is the Olympics or the mastery of a pursuit, and then the compulsion is swimming.

The difference is that society celebrates Olympians, and we call that a productive passion. Whereas if you had the same passion for even maybe video games are now considered an addiction, suddenly it’s a negative thing. So again, that’s the paradox that there’s this part of it like Steve says, do you control your passion or it control you? But there’s also this part of it, well, what direction is it pointed in?

If I’m playing video games nine hours a day because I want to be a professional gamer, depending on what community I’m in, that might be seen as something that needs psychotherapy. If I’m swimming nine hours a day because I’m pursuing the Olympics, I’m a hero. So, it’s this really fine same. Same thing with entrepreneurial pursuits. There’s a level of optimism that the behavioral scientist Dan Kahneman has called delusion and to be a good entrepreneur you have to be a little bit delusional. So, these are the interesting topics that we wanted to explore because it’s just not so straightforward.

Brett McKay: So, it sounds like passion, be either, be positive, negative. So, it’s pretty much the same thing, the same sort of things, that desire to achieve something. But it can be positive or negative depending on context. Right? So, if you’re a professional gamer and you’re like in a family of doctors, well your passion for your video games is going to be seen as negative. But then also it can be negative or positive depending on whether you have control over the passion.

Steve Magness: Yeah, exactly. That’s well said. So there’s, if we’re going to be really logical, and I love how you just broke that down, there’s what direction are you pointing your passion in? So, is it pointed in a productive direction or a destructive direction? Because you could really be passionate about scoring your next hit of meth, and that’s certainly not positive. Let’s assume that you’re pointing it in a productive direction, then the next layer is do you have control over it or does it have control over you?

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about this idea of finding your passion, because there’s a lot of books written about that. And we’ve also had guests on the podcast like Cal Newport wrote a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You where he kind of made the case that following your passion can be kind of dumb sometimes. And you guys talk about that, finding your passion, and again, the advice you give is nuanced. So, see when people typically spit out the advice of finding your passion, what do they mean? And how is that sort of typical idea of finding your passion can lead you to that sort of that negative passion?

Steve Magness: Yeah, I think the best way to look at it is actually a comparison to live. Right? So, we have this idea that there’s a soulmate out there for us. That there’s this one person that will fill our holes in our relationships and make us a better person. Well, that idea of love didn’t exist until around the beginning of the 20th century, right, when romanticism started taking over and we saw all these Disney movies getting made and stuff. And that kind of puts this idea of soulmate into our mindset. Well, the same thing happens with passion. So, we developed this idea in the 20th century that there’s one fit for our activity or job that we’d like to desire, and that’s what researchers started calling the fit mindset of passion, where there’s one thing that we need to do, or that when we start a new pursuit we should instantly feel passion about it.

And it turns out that if you look at research and surveys and stuff, almost 80% of people believe in this fir mindset view of passion, that they need to feel this instant connection. Right? That they need to go find something that they’re passionate about. And it turns out that not only is that wrong, but there’s negative consequences for that. Right? And some of those are that if you think that you have to find a passion, that any time you pursue something, the first sign of challenge or the first sign of adversity that shows that, “Oh this might not be easy. This might not be the thing that I’m in love with doing,” is people will turn away. So, we’re more likely to give up. We’re more likely to move on.

So instead, kind of what we’ve found and what we profess is instead of find your passion, dabble in things that you’re interested in, and then see if they can develop into passions.

Brett McKay: So okay, this is the dabbling part. But how do you, let’s say you’ve, how do you recognize when you think there’s something there that you could become passionate about? And once you do, how do you grow in a way where you don’t have those downsides of like the fit mindset of passion where you have some adversity or maybe you have a time that you kind of get bored with it, that you don’t give up right away?

Steve Magness: Yeah, so that’s a good question. So, what you find with this first you have to have that mindset, right, of okay, passion is something that can grow. It’s not something that is fixed. So, that’s step number one. Once you have that is, we’re really good at this when we’re young. Right? We’re really good as kids is dabbling in different things that we’re interested in, and then figuring out and finding the things that we’re pretty good at and the things that we enjoy over time.

And it turns out we can almost predict those to a degree based on if they fill kind of some basic needs. And what a group of psychologists and researchers developed this theory which is called self determination theory that says we need basically three main things to keep us satisfied. Right? So, we’re pursuing a passion or a job if we have these three main things, then it’s likely that we’ll enjoy it, develop and all that good stuff.

And those things are, number one is competency. So, what that means is we need to be able to feel like we’re making progress. Like we’re becoming competent. Right? The second one is autonomy, so we have to have some sort of degree of control. Right? So, if we’re in a job or if our passion is something that a boss dictates everything and we have no freedom or expression, then the likelihood of us developing into something that is a positive passion for us is very low. So, some sort of degree of autonomy. And then the third and final thing is called relatedness, which means that we need to feel connected to either the other people who are pursuing this with us, let’s say a job. Or that this has something bigger than ourselves. Some greater meaning. So, this passion might be towards impacting the greater good of humanity or something like that.

So, it’s those three things, those three needs that we really need to be filled, competency, autonomy and relatedness.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the competency factor is things what Cal Newport talked about in his book that oftentimes the thing that makes you passionate about your work is that you’re good at it. And getting good at something, that takes time. And it might take years for you to get good at it. And I thought that really changed the way I looked at passion. Getting good at something can give you satisfaction and enjoyment in the long run.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, and I think Steve made the point a little while ago about the relationship to romantic love. And it’s pretty similar, right? Like anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship knows that love kind of grows as you nurture it, and if you’re good at nurturing it, and that often results from good communication in a partnership, then the love grows. And it’s been widely reported recently in Buzzfeed and in The Atlantic that particularly in the millennial generation, less people are finding love and people hypothesize, researcher hypothesize that this is because there’s this expectation that I’m going to meet the perfect person. And now that there’s all these online dating apps such as Tinder and OK Cupid, it feels like the playing field is so big so therefore of course I should keep searching, otherwise I’m going to settle.

And I think the same exact thing is true for passion. We’re so interconnected that it feels like oh, if I can’t find the perfect thing for me in the universe, then I’m going to keep on searching. And I think having that bar set so high just keeps you searching.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, you dabble with different things. You find something that provides competency, autonomy and relatedness. And you find that and you keep working at it. And you can sort of nurture that good passion and avoid the downsides of a fit mindset passion. But another idea you hear when you hear people talk or write about passion is this idea you got to go all in from the beginning. Right? You got to burn boats, and just no escape hatches available. If you really want to pursue your passion, what does your research say about that, Brad?

Brad Stulberg: So, it’s kind of a theme of this book is everything you’ve heard about passion is wrong. Research says the exact opposite, that the best way to cultivate a passion and to do it in a way that can stick with you for a long period of time is to do it gradually. There’s this notion that Steve and I came up with around keeping your day job. And what this means is just that. So as you said, you’re dabbling in your interests, you find something that you’re competent in. Maybe it’s writing. Maybe it’s blogging. Could be podcasting. Could be woodwork. And everyone, all the self-help books are going to say, All right, you’ve found your lust, so you should quit your job and go all-in.” Not true. What ends up happening when you do that is suddenly you need to have an income, and that creates an enormous pressure. Most people don’t perform well under that pressure. And even if they do perform well under that pressure, it forces them to perhaps expedite the path and also to take on work that they might not otherwise want to take on.

So, the example there is someone that becomes passionate about writing, quits their job, and then suddenly they have to churn out nine listicle articles every week just to pay rent. This is also true not just in creative pursuits, but in more standard conventional corporate pursuits. So, there’s some research that’s been covered in the Harvard Business Review. It shows that entrepreneurs who start their companies as a side gig while keeping their day jobs are about 33% more likely to have successful companies, five, 10 years later on. And the reason for that is exactly what I just said in the creative pursuits. If you’re starting the company on the side, you have much more freedom to take meaningful risks. Whereas if suddenly you’ve got to pay the bills, you can’t take those risks. And a huge part about starting a passionate pursuit is the ability to have some freedom and autonomy to take risks.

Brett McKay: I love that advice. And I’ve seen it play out in my own life. The Art of Manliness, I started this when I was at law school as a part-time thing. And it took about three or four years before I could do it full-time. And even then, I was still hedging my bets considerably until I was finally, “Yes, I can do this.” So yeah, whenever I have people ask me for advice, like, “Hey, should I just like go in?” I’m like, “No, just keep your day job and wait a few years before you know this is a sure thing.”

Brad Stulberg: Totally. It’s funny that you said that. So, I know in my own case, let’s see. I applied to journalism school in high school when I was 17 for college. I didn’t get in. So, like any other 17-year-old I’m like, “Oh, guess I’m not going to be a writer.” Came back to writing when I started triathlon and it was cool to have a blog. I wrote a blog that nobody read except for me for two years. Got a lucky break, got an article published. Wrote unpaid for the Huffington Post for another year. Started writing like $50.00 articles for Men’s Fitness all while having another job. And it wasn’t for a good six years of writing that writing became even a somewhat sizeable proportion of my income. And it wasn’t until eight years and a published book that now I actually call myself a writer. I loved it eight years ago, but it was a very gradual process. And I’m pretty sure that if I would’ve gone all-in, I would not have ended up where I am.

Brett McKay: Right. So, I like that idea. Because it’s counterintuitive. You have to be conservative to take big risks. It reminds me of, we’ve had Nassim Taleb on the podcast and his Barbell strategy where he’s like sort of investment strategy but also strategy towards life is you have one thing where it’s like very conservative, and then you have another part where you take lots of risks, but you can do those risks because you have those conservative assets there with you.

Brad Stulberg: Exactly. I think Nassim Taleb talks about being an accountant and a rock star at the same time.

Brett McKay: Right. I mean, he highlights people like a lot of famous poet and writers, like they had really boring jobs like bankers, right? And they did their writing on, they moonlighted their writing. But the reason they could do the writing is because they had the boring jobs.

Okay. Let’s talk about this idea of we found our passion, we’re nurturing it, it’s coming along, we’re standing in the rails on sort of that positive passion. But how can even positive passions start going awry, Steve?

Steve Magness: Yeah, so it’s interesting because no on sets out to have obsessive or negative passion. Right? It all starts out from a good place. And when we started looking at people who had this negative side of passion, they all start out either with being brilliant entrepreneurs or like exceptional athletes who were trying to change the world or improve their team’s performance to a great degree, but then ended up being derailed. And what tends to happen, the reason you go towards that negative side is two reasons: Is one is that the external markers of success, the external rewards start becoming predominately the thing that you’re looking at. So, it becomes more important to make a certain amount of money or win the game than it does to originally that you enjoyed it and what you were trying to do in your mission to change whatever. That’s number one.

And then number two that happens is your identity becomes wrapped around what you do. So, you can’t separate that, hey I am, let’s say a runner, versus I am a person who runs and is trying to make the Olympics. Like there is a difference there. And when our identity becomes wrapped up into it so far, then if we lose, let’s say we lose a race or we fail, our book launch fails. Or our next business opportunity fails. It’s not just that I failed at my job, it’s that I myself am a failure. So, when you get those things tied together, when you get your identity wrapped around what you’re doing, and you get failures and these downsides, what happens is it creates this obsessive passion where you goal becomes almost to survive and make sure that you keep the appearances of that everything is being successful, so you start to have this fear of failure, this playing not to lose. This fear being the short-term motivator.

And what happens, again, if you look at it from a business standpoint, if you look at if from people like Jeff Skilling at Enron who was extremely brilliant at the start of his career, and tauted passion as a virtue. Then cheated, cooked the books and did all this stuff. Or if you look at from an athletic standpoint, an individual like Alex Rodriguez who was a phenomenal player as a youth, phenomenal playing in the MLB when he was 19, 20 years old. Great player. But succumbed to using steroids later on. The research backs that up. If you tend towards the obsessive style passion, you’re more likely to cheat, you’re more likely to plagiarize, you’re more likely to bend the rules because winning or accomplishing this external goal is more important than anything else.

Brett McKay: That’s again, this is another fine line because those external goals, I mean don’t they kind of play role in motivation? And I mean, so how do we still use those external goals for motivation, which is nice to get those dopamine hits that you see your book doing well, or you get As, you get accolades from people, but without falling into the trap where it becomes the end all, be all?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah so I think that, like you said, it’s tricky and it’s nuanced. And as we write in the book, that unless you have extensive Zen meditation training, it’s very hard to not care about those external validators and those markers of success. What Steve and I believe and born out by our reporting and research is that so long as you keep about 51% of your motivation coming from within, then you’re safe. So, as long as the majority of your motivation comes from within, because it should feel good to succeed. It feels great to write a bestselling book. I’m sure it feels great to have a top podcast. It feels great to get promoted. The thing is that as great as that feels, the work itself and what you’re doing or at least some greater purpose for doing it, needs to always be greater. And this does not happen automatically, right? It’s not just like I can tell myself, “Oh, I’m going to make sure that my drive stays from within.”

It’s actually something that has to be practiced. Because as Steve said what happens is that if you’re not careful, even if your drive starts from within or you’ve kept your drive from within, there are so many external barometers that really take a claim in your psyche and very quickly they can get a hold of you and suddenly you thought you were driven from within, but you’re actually a slave to getting the promotion or a slave to recognition or a slave to hitting the next 2,000 Twitter followers or whatever it might be.

So, another common notion that we dispel is that passion isn’t just this one-time thing. It’s not, “Oh, I have my passion, I’m driven from within, now everything’s going to be good.” But actually, it’s an ongoing practice and there are concrete steps that you can take to help keep your drive predominately coming from within.

Brett McKay: I mean yeah, the other downside, and you talk about this in the book of using external markers is that yeah, you’ll experience that dopamine hit, we’ll call it, and it feels good but you get used to it, and you have to move onto something else. And it’s always, you’re never satisfied, basically.

Steve Magness: Yeah, I mean as we talked about earlier, Brad mentioned is that passion and addiction are close cousins. Right? So, it’s no different than being a drug addict where you need more drugs, more frequently, et cetera, et cetera to satisfy things. The same things happens when you’re looking at pursuing your passion and utilizing external rewards for it is we need bigger performances. I think we can all relate to this in our own life. As a writer I can remember the first time I got something published and being, “Ah,” through the roof. Nowadays, it’s not that big of a deal. Like I’m not going to get any dopamine hit from doing that. So, what you really have to do is again, step back and separate things so that you don’t go down this almost vicious cycle of needing more and more and more, which can put you on this path to obsessive passion.

Brett McKay: And that obsessive passion make you or cause you to make choices you might regret later on. So, how do you funnel that passion, this energy towards the positive where you’re motivated from an internal source. How does that happen, Brad?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah. So again, I think it’s key for listeners to hear and not hold themselves to such a high bar where suddenly you don’t feel good. I mean, we felt great when you reached out to us and said you wanted to have us on the podcast. And we make sure that that stays, even if it’s a slim, but a slim minority of motivation. So, based on all the research and reporting that we did in our work coaching entrepreneurs, executives and athletes, Steve and I developed something that we like to call the mastery mindset. And the mastery mindset has six pillars, all of which are fairly mindset base, but that have concrete practices underneath them that are a part of practice and keeping it harmonious.

So, the first pillar is this notion of drive from within, which we’ve talked a lot about. How do you keep drive from within? We like to call it the 24 hour rule. So, this is any time that you have a huge success, or if you have a terrible failure, give yourself 24 hours to celebrate the success or grieve the defeat. But then after that 24 hours, get back to the work. There’s something about getting back to the work that just comes with all of this humility. If you’ve had a great success and you get back to the work, you’re really quickly reminded that, “Wow, I have to start again, and this is hard, but I like the work.” If you had a bad failure, anyone can tell you that getting back to the work, it just almost fills that gap because you’re like, “Okay, I can try again. I can do this. What I really like about this is the work itself, not the outcome.”

The second part of the mastery mindset is to have this notion of process over outcomes. So, you might have this big grand outcome, which is to publish a book or to start a business or to become a vice president at your company, or to have some kind of groundbreaking scientific breakthrough. But once you have that outcome, that outcome goal should become this North Star that you’re shooting for and you should have all of these process markers that are under your control along the way. So, did I write 500 words a day? Did I challenge myself to speak more at a meeting? The difference is that when you’re focused on a process, your validating and measuring yourself on all things that you can control. Whereas if you’re super focused on outcomes, then things are outside of your control.

Another huge part of the mastery mindset is this notion of embracing acute failure for chronic gains. So again, if your longterm goal is mastery, is developing a lifelong passion, suddenly failure isn’t like this end-all be-all terrible event. It’s actually an opportunity to learn, to gain more information so you can keep on going.

And then the last three elements of the mastery mindset are to have this best goal of getting better. So if your goal is to get better, then any success isn’t an endpoint and any failure is just information. And then to be present and to be patient. So again, it’s drive from within, process over outcomes, embrace acute failure for chronic gains, the best goal is to get better, cultivate presence, and be patient.

Brett McKay: And that process over outcomes made me, like the thing that came to mind as I was reading that as you were talking, again was like great coaches like Bill Walsh who he wrote the book, The Score Takes Care of Itself where he’d established these metrics, these processes that the San Francisco 49ers are going to do, and it didn’t matter if the game, they won the game, as long as they did these things, these own personal benchmarks, they’d be okay. And like he turned this team, it used to be like the worst team in the NFL, turned it around, won the Superbowl the next year. Same thing with John Wooden. He had the same sort of mindset, process over outcome.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah. And what’s interesting is if you look back to original Buddhist text or stoicism, like we’re talking B.C. before the modern calendar, the greatest minds were saying the same things. So I think it’s interesting like you mentioned Bill Walsh or Wooden or more recently Greg Popovich or Bill Belichick. Like the more that you see these patterns, the more I have confidence in saying these things are probably true. So yeah, like a process over outcome, and even in parenting, like I’ve got an 11-month-old now and it’s so tempting to be like, “Is he walking? Is he talking? Is he meeting these milestones?” But that’s kind of dumb, because development’s not linear. So it’s, the better thing is much more like, “Is he playing? Are we reading to him? Is he smiling?” And I think that this process over outcome thing again, it’s tricky because in the current ethos is requires swimming upstream. Because everything is so outcome-based today. But yeah, that’s not a recipe for long-term success, nor for health and well-being.

Brett McKay: So, there’s this other idea that you hear when people write about passion on blogs and books, that you can be passionate about something, your work, your hobby, or whatever it is, but also have a balanced life. Is it possible you’ve both passionate and balanced at the same time?

Steve Magness: Like most things we’ve talked about, there’s a nuanced answer. But in our opinion it’s not, you can’t. Right? So, balance and passion are almost antithetical. Right? So, think about any time you’ve been in the throes of doing something passionate, whether that’s in the zone and writing, or like in the zone during a basketball game, or whatever it is you’re doing. Or even during love, right? When you’re first falling in love. Like you are literally completely consumed by that activity. That is the only thing that you’re thinking about. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to make your dinner or your kids at home, or anything like that. Passion is being fully consumed. So, I think what we found is that trying to be balanced and devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of our lives, like that detracts from the experience of being passionate. So instead, again, what we found is that everything has this kind of consequence. Right?

One of the persons we profiled in the book, Warren Buffet, has this immense passion for investing. Right? But his father, or his son said he had to work really hard to be good at living. Right? Because he was really passionate about investing, but this other side, eh, he wasn’t that good at it. So he had to almost, there was this trade off to do it.

And if you look at other figures in history, for instance Gandhi was incredibly amazing at what he did for India and bring peace and all that stuff, but he was also kind of a poor father. That doesn’t mean that Gandhi is a bad person or anything like that. It’s just that when you’re passionate about something, you’re going to be inherently unbalanced. So, it’s almost accepting that and understanding that.

Brett McKay: But how do you balance that with other people? Right? So talk about, you mentioned family life, that sort of suffering because of individuals being passionate about something. So, what do you tell your family? Like do you have to have this conversation, it’s like, “Look, I love you guys, but this thing’s more,” I mean do you have to say that it’s more important? Like what do you do?

Steve Magness: Yeah, I think the big thing and what we kind of profess which is that you need to have self-awareness to understand what your trade off is. Right? So, is it something that you’re going to neglect? Right? Is it, “Hey, I’m going to neglect my family for a little bit.” Right? And that sounds horrible to do, but the other part of that is, is having the ability to step back and zoom in and out of your passion. Right? So, it’s this thing of, hey, maybe during this timeframe, I’m going to be all-consumed by this entrepreneurial job that I’m doing. But when I get home at six o’clock, it’s all family, and I’m going to try to forget about this a little bit. And it’ really about creating that self-awareness to be able to ensure that you’re in charge of making those choices and evaluating the trade offs, and knowing what you might be missing out on the other hand. And if you can do that, you’re okay.

I think back to actually a formative experience in high school for me, which is when my coach in high school I ran track and cross-country, we were on the brink of being really good. I ended up being the fastest miler in the country for high school that year. But before that season, I remember our coach Gerald Stewart pulling us aside and saying, “Hey guys, if you’re on this team and you’re in this journey, like you can only be good or great at a couple things at a time. I think he said like two or three things at a time.” If you’re going to be on this team, you’re making this one thing. Okay? If you’re going to school, you should probably consider that. But there’s not much else left in there, and you might have to sacrifice and not go to the high school parties and do all these other things like that.”

And he was spot on. Like we were giving something up. I was not balanced in doing that. But it was like you’re aware of that choice and I think that’s the big thing. As long as you’re aware of it and you’re understanding the choices that you’re making, then it’s not bad to be unbalanced at times.

Brett McKay: I like that idea of being unbalanced sometimes. It doesn’t have to be all the time. Because that would be like-

Steve Magness: Right.

Brett McKay: Going to negative passion. But it’s okay to have periods of where you’re completely unbalanced.

Steve Magness: Exactly. I mean I think of it, look at Brad and I as we’re writing this book. There’s times, like for instance, we’re in the deep throes of kind of finalizing it, where we are all-consumed by, “Hey, we go to get this done.” When we go to launch this book, right? Those couple days surrounding launch time, like we’ve said it aside and said, “Hey, we’re all in on this.” Right? I remember for our first book Peak Performance, the day it launched we were like, “Okay, we’re going to do all this for launch stuff, but then we’re going to step aside and we’re going to go down to the gym and exercise, and we’re going to leave our phones and all this other stuff alone.”

And we went to try and do that, and it was impossible. Right? We were on there checking to see how the book was selling and getting our little dopamine hits because at that time, we almost made the choices what’s most important, and right now it’s promoting, selling this book, et cetera. So, it’s at different time points in your life you kind of have to make that choice of, “Hey, what do I want to be all-consumed by?” And the biggest thing to make sure it doesn’t turn negative is just to have the ability to step back. Right?

Where it goes wrong is when someone gets all-consumed, and then they don’t have that ability to kind of zoom back out and be like, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m neglecting A, B and C over here. Do I really want to neglect that for any longer, or do I have to start shifting my intention to that?”

Brett McKay: Brad, were you going to say something?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah. I was just going to add in too that the examples that Steve gave, like Gandhi, I mean yeah, if you’re going to totally change the course of the world, odds are that’s all that you’re going to do. But while the same theme applies on smaller scales, you can start a company and still be a really good family person. And you might not have too many hobbies. You might not be a great friend. You might not be a great family member beyond your nuclear family. And these are things that people don’t like talking about. But I think that what frustrates a lot of people is the way that the culture talks about balance, “It’s you should be super passionate about your job. You should take your kids to school. You should have four hobbies. You should get beers with the guys once a week. You should call your parents,” like all of this stuff at once. You just cannot do it. And what ends up happening is it’s a false bar and you don’t reach it, so you’re really disappointed.

So as Steve was saying, like I do think it’s important to call out. Like yeah, like there are trade offs. If I really care about something inherently, I’m going to be less interested and spend less time on other things. And if you’re  forthright about that and you bring those trade offs to light, then you can evaluate them, be very deliberate in doing so, and then create boundaries and stick to those boundaries. So in my case, it really is, right now it’s my work, my family, and my physical practice. And even a physical practice I could say is a part of my job, because I’m most creative when I’m, when my body’s in motion.

But besides the point, I’m not as good of a friend as I could be. And there are times of the year when it’s really bad like when a book’s coming out. And then after that period, I kind of double down on friendship. And I think that, I know I sound like a broken record, but this point hits me hard because I see it in so many people trying to be everything to everyone at the same time. And just disappointing themselves and disappointing other people, versus calling a spade a spade and saying, “Know what? This is a period of my life where I’m going all in on X and Y. And as a result, W and Z just aren’t going to get my attention, and that’s okay.

Brett McKay: You can have it all, but not all at once.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, you could edit me out for the last 30 seconds. Thank you.

Brett McKay: So, here’s another thing that you talk about. People think when they find their passion, they’ll always be passionate. Like it’s, they’re done. They’ve found their life’s work, their life’s mission. But you guys talk about it’s possible to get burnout even on your passion. So Steve, what’s going on? How is it possible to get burnt out on a passion?

Steve Magness: I mean, I think it’s possible to get burnout on anything is number one. But it’s like anything. Right? If you’re investing all this time, energy, et cetera, burnout can occur. Because burnout occurs generally when you mess up what we called in our first book, this stress plus rest equals growth equation, is when you mess up this how hard are you stressing versus how much are you recovering? This balance cycle. Right? It’s no different than getting burnt out or fatigued from lifting weights or running roo much, or whatever have you.

Like I love running, but I’ve been burnt out on running because I messed up that balance. And it’s the same in passion. If I go heavily invested, and let’s say my job or writing, whatever have you, and I don’t give myself the time or space to recover and step away from it, then I’m going to feel burnt out. So, it’s again, comes back to being intentional about it, and also setting your life up so you understand that. So you understand after a period where you’re going, let say, “all in” on something, that you have some time to recover and balance that out.

I think it was Stephen King who kind of said for him that not working is the real work. Right? So, he had to make it very obvious that, “Hey, I need to step away from things and rest and recover and recharge so that I can do the work at the level that I need to.”

Brett McKay: So, a good way to think of it is like rest is work. That’d probably help the over achievers that want to go all the time, it’s like, “Actually, when you’re resting, you’re actually working,” sort of a mind trick.

Steve Magness: Yeah. Exactly. It’s a mindset thing. Right? Because it’s just like in the physical standpoint, if we go lift weights, we don’t get stronger when we’re lifting weights, we get stronger when our body is resting and recovering and repairing things. The same thing happens from a mental standpoint of I’m going to learn stuff, I don’t actually really learn it when I’m reading over material. I learn it when my brain is kind of digesting and cementing those as memories. The same thing happens with pursuing whatever passion it is, is we need that period of rest recovery to make sure that we don’t burn out.

Brett McKay: Well another thing people don’t talk about when it comes to passion, so you discover something, you have success, it something going on for the long-term. But like, it can’t last, sometimes it doesn’t last forever. Like sometimes maybe the thing you’re passionate about you can just no longer do. This probably happens with athletes, right, because age, they’ll age out. They can no longer pursue that passion of theirs. Or it could just happen like you just, aren’t passionate about it anymore. I mean I’m not talking like you’re just temporarily burnt out. Like I’m talking about you’ve really just lost your passion for something altogether. Right? But no one tells you like what do you do when that happens? So, what do you do when you can no longer do the thing you’re passionate about?

I mean those are two different situations that the approach might be different. 

Steve Magness: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s like what happens when you can no longer do the thing you’re passionate about because of age, because of changing business, your market factors. So what happens there? And then also, what do you do when you’re just no longer passionate about the thing you used to be passionate about?

Brad Stulberg: So, I’ll take the first one first which is what do you do if there’s a change in the situation  where you can no longer do the thing that you’re passionate about. That is really, really hard. There is a reason that elite athletes suffer from anxiety and depressive disorders at a greater rate than the normal population upon their retirement. And there’s a reason that entrepreneurs who are forced to sell their companies or stop working also really struggle with mood disorders. And that is because if you are devoting so much of yourself to this thing, as Steve mentioned if a portion of your identity is tied to this thing, and suddenly you can’t do the thing, well, there is a huge hole that was filled that is now open.

So, how do you prevent this from happening? I think first and foremost is to know when you’re going into a passion that it might not be forever. And that’s a really good motivating force to make sure that you’re diversifying yourself, at least enough where if you had to stop doing what you’re doing, in an extreme life still feels good, and at the very least worth living.

I think the second thing is you’re reaching a transition period. Just because you have to leave the thing that you’re passionate about doesn’t mean that you leave all of the skills, capabilities and relationships that you developed behind. So particularly when working with athletes, something that we like to ask are well in order to be a world class athlete, you have to have discipline, drive, perhaps some kind of competitive nature.

Well what are other fields where those same core functions can work really well and can give you as we go back to where we started, can give you that sense of mastery or competence, and where you can blossom somewhere else? So, how can you apply some of the things that made you passionate and that worked in your passion elsewhere?

All of that said, perhaps most important is some kind of community around you. Because again, it’s kind of like the balance thing, like no one likes talking about it, but it sucks. When you have to stop doing something that you love, it is really, really hard. And nothing softens that blow more than supportive community. And supportive community isn’t necessarily people that don’t get it telling you to cheer up. If anything, supportive community’s the opposite. It’s people that have been there, that can sit with you, be present for you and be like, “This is a really tough transition time. It’s sucks. Going to be here to support you, and you’re going to work through it.”

Brett McKay: Well, speaking to some of the examples of athletes, something I’ve seen them do is oftentimes they’ll transition to coaching after their career as an athlete has ended. Or in the NFL or basketball, you’ll see these guys while they’re still athletes in the off season, they’ll go to like broadcast school so they can learn, hopefully transition to becoming a sportscaster.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, that’s awesome. JJ Redick is a great example of that right now on the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s got a podcast on Bill Simmons’ the Ringer channel, and I mean he’s a hell of as shooter, but he’s also a great podcast host. So, I think that’s a beautiful example of this diversification. Let’s say that you’re not an elite athlete because most people aren’t. Even if you’re just really passionate about your job, like retirement is a really hard thing for a lot of people. So, the analogous thing there would be that while you’re in your work, cultivate some kind of side hustle. And again, we’re talking about the extremes, because I think you learn from the extremes. But my great uncle was financial advisor. Loved his job. And when the time to retire was coming, he took up all these hobbies. It’s kind of like the youthful exploring your interest. And he got really into jewelry making. I mean, and this is like a straight edge, black suit, red tie corporate dude, and he started making jewelry and selling it in nursing homes. And now he’s got a jewelry studio in his basement.

So, that same theme, whether your JJ Redick on a podcast or my uncle making jewelry, I think it’s real important to make sure that you’re cultivating something else that you can be passionate about when you move on.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about the instance of let’s say you just, you lose the passion for the thing that you were once passionate about. What happens there?

Brad Stulberg: Steve, I’ll let you take this one.

Steve Magness: Sure. Yeah, I think there is what you need to almost delineate and discover is this something that I can rekindle? Or is this something that I should move on from? And I think the first thing you try and do is see if you still have that love for the passion that you’re doing. And the best way to do that is actually to kind of reflect and reengage on why you do that activity. Why did you get involved in it in the first part? What is your purpose for that? If you can rediscover that, then a lot of times you can rekindle your passion, because what happens is as we’ve been doing something for years and years and years, like our motivation and drive gets slowly shifted from maybe that original feeling to something more, I don’t know, more just kind of going through the motions on things, and not that initial joy.

So, reflecting on your purpose, like really re-engaging with why you started that. And also another thing that helps is also, get a new perspective for what it is you’re doing. So, a lot of times what I’ve seen is athletes who have been doing the same sport for maybe 15, 20 years is if they start to give back and say, “Hey, I’m going to start helping the rookie players or the younger athletes.” Or volunteer coach at a youth league. What happens is they see young athletes or young people engaging with their sport, and it reminds them why they did it in the first place, and they kind of reengage reformulate that passion. So, whether that’s on the athletic field or in the business world, kind of taking some mentorship under your wings and rekindling that fire can be a great way to do so.

Brett McKay: And then if you can’t rekindle it, just be okay with moving on?

Steve Magness: Yeah. There I think it goes to what Brad said, is it’s coming to terms with moving on. And I think one of the things that we found was really powerful is that whenever you stop a passion or a career, it almost feels like a death. Right? It’s like part of me is dying. So, that’s a really traumatic thing. And what happens is people feel like they almost lose control of their sense of self or lose control of their stories. So, what we encourage people to do is always make sure that you’re in control of your story and you’re writing it. Right?

So, it’s not that Steve the athlete is dying. It’s that, “Hey, how do I want this story written? How do I want to see this?” And in a lot of ways it’s no different than how you get over a bad breakup. Right? If you get over a bad breakup, one of the tactics is to sit there and think back and almost reformulate how you saw the entire relationship. You sit there and are like, “Oh no. She or he wasn’t good for me because they did this, this and this and this.”  Right? We have that same power and that ability when we move on from a career or a passion. So, take advantage of it. Be in control of like how you’re writing your story.

Brett McKay: Well, Steve and Brad, it’s been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah. So the book has a website, which is And I am on Twitter @bstuhlberg. And Steve is on Twitter and Instagram @stevemagness. And yeah, that’s it.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Brad, Steve, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Brad Stulberg: Thank you. Great conversation.

Steve Magness: Yeah, thanks a lot.

Brett McKay: My guests today were Brad Stuhlberg and Steve Magness. They are the authors of the book The Passion Paradox. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about their work and their work and their book at Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources or even delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website where you can find all of the podcasts in our archives. There’s over 490 there. Also thousands of articles we’ve written about money and career, personal finance, fitness, just how to be a better Dad, better husband and father. Check it out, While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you.

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