“The Passion Paradox” by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness
Why a Book About Passion
Focusing on performance practices alone misses a crucial point. All the greats shared something else in common: An unrelenting drive. An eternal hunger. An inability to be satiated. Passion.
When you are deep in the throes of a passion, when you’re really going for something, it can seem as if nothing else matters. This can be a good thing, a bad thing, or, more often than not, a bit of both at the same time.
Passion Must Be Handled with Care
Consider just a few of the negative paths that passion can lead you down: you become a slave to external results and validation; you become blind to everything but your passion; you burn out; you lose joy.
Passion is fragile, and it must be handled with care. This is why research shows that passion isn’t just linked to happiness, health, performance, and life satisfaction, but also to anxiety, depression, burnout, and unethical behavior.
Finding your passion is only half the battle anyway. Knowing how to sustain and channel it in a productive and healthy manner is the other — and equally important — half.
The Origins of Passion
In many ways, passion and suffering are still very much connected.
When you’re under passion’s spell, the reward you think you’re chasing — usually some sort of contentment or satiation — is merely an illusion. We don’t get hooked on the feeling associated with achievement, we get hooked on the feeling associated with the chase.
We’re not wired to simply be content. We’re wired to keep pushing.
The line between what we consider a destructive addiction and a productive passion is a fine one, if such a line exists at all.
There is a biological reason why the wonderful feeling of passion cannot coexist with the wonderful feeling of contentment. Passion builds on itself: the more we push, the more we get hooked on the feeling of pushing.
Throwing ourselves wholly into a passion shrinks our world, overshadowing whatever inner struggles we may be facing and making us feel comfortable and in control. Our obsessions become a refuge. Places where we can fill the voids created by other insufficiencies in our lives. A chance to flee from the chaos and quiet the noise.
Passionate pursuits often become psychological refuges, allowing you to hide from areas of your life that may be lacking: this can be both productive (keeps you from turning to destructive behaviors) and at the same time damaging (keeps you from confronting underlying issues).
Individuals we praise for passion — who go on to experience huge successes — are often those who have a found a way to turn what could be seen as biological and psychological weaknesses into strengths.
Find and Grow Your Passion
A better approach to finding your passion is to lower the bar from perfect to interesting, then give yourself permission to pursue your interests with an open mind.
Especially when first exploring new ideas and activities, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Interest is an invitation to exploration, drawing your attention toward activities that have the potential to grow into something greater. But that can only occur if you accept the invitation.
Enduring motivation comes from satisfying three basic needs:
- Competency is about having a sense of control over the outcome of your efforts and the ability to make progress over time.
- Autonomy, is about acting in harmony with your innermost being. It means you’re connecting what you do with who you are.
- Relatedness, the need to feel connected to and/or like you are a part of something larger.
Activities that fulfill these three basic needs are the ones we should throw ourselves into. Engaging in such activities gives us the best chance to bring about one of the most rewarding feeling there is: a feeling of aliveness and self-actualization, that you’re doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing.
The best route to making your passion a bigger part of your life is often not to choose must over should, but rather to choose must and should.
Those who go big or go home often end up going home. Those who go incrementally over a long period of time often end up with something big.
Over time, gradually shift the equation, spending more time and energy pursuing your passion and less time on the “safer” stuff.
When Passion Goes Awry
Obsessive passion can quickly hijack a joyful and righteous pursuit and turn it into a dark one. One of the foremost reasons for this is that someone who is obsessively passionate ties their self-worth to things outside their control. This often ends up creating high levels of distress.
Being passionate about — or, perhaps better put, a slave to — the achievement of an external result that you cannot control creates a volatile and fragile sense of self-worth.
Those who are most focused on reaching external barometer of success are often the same people who struggle most to enjoy it.
When people who embody obsessive passion fail, experience setbacks, or even just plateau, they often feel completely devastated. As a result, obsessive passion is linked to anxiety, depression, burnout, and unethical behavior.
Passion that is rooted in fear comes at quite a cost. And rarely, if ever, is it sustainable.
As a long-term motivator, fear of failure quickly becomes toxic.
Your passion should not come from the outside. It should come from within.
The Best Kind of Passion
Those who focus most on success are least likely to achieve it. Those who focus least on success, and focus on the process of engaging in their craft instead, are most likely to achieve it.
Individuals on the path of mastery are driven from within.
Don’t judge yourself against others. Judge yourself against prior versions of yourself and the effort you are exerting in the present moment. This is about as healthy a form of competition as there is.
Doing the work has a special way of putting both success and failure in their respective places. After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this.
You don’t define yourself by any single moment in time; you defined yourself by an entire body of work in service of ongoing growth and development.
When your goal is simply to get better, you set yourself up for a lifetime relationship with your passion, which no longer becomes something you do but rather someone you are.
You not only learn from failure but if you accept it as an inherent part of mastery and view it productively, you overcome it and are hardened by it
To learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau.
When we are fully present for whatever it is we are doing, we gain a new appreciation for our respective pursuits and our own unique role in them.
The mastery mindset contains six key principles:
- Driven from within.
- Focus on the process.
- Don’t worry about being the best; worry about being the best at getting better.
- Embrace acute failure for chronic gains.
- Be patient.
- Be here now.
The Illusion of Balance
Our time, attention, and energy are limited. The more passionate we become about any one pursuit, the less of ourselves we have to offer to everything else.
Living with passion is, by definition, living without balance.
Far better than striving for balance is striving for self-awareness, or the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring, and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors, and impact on others.
Practicing self-awareness allows you to more honestly evaluate and reevaluate the trade-offs inherent to living an unbalanced, passionate life.
When it comes to living with passion, it’s not about balance. it’s about marrying strong harmonious passion with an equally strong self-awareness. Doing so trumps balance any day.
Self-Awareness and the Power to Choose
Self-awareness allows you to honestly and objectively evaluate your passion and, if necessary, shift course of apply the brakes.
No different from a close relationship with anyone else, you need to work at having a close relationship with yourself.
Regularly evaluate your passions as if they belong to someone else. What would you say to that person? Would you tell them to keep pushing, or perhaps to push even harder? Or would you tell them to pull back, that the trade-offs they are making in order to pursue their passion are too great?
When we lose perspective — when all we can see is our passion — we lose the ability to choose what we want to do with our lives.
When we expose ourselves to awe, we gain the perspective to make more thoughtful, fully conscious decisions about how we want to channel our energy, engage in our respective passions, and make big life choices.
There is no greater reminder that our time is finite, no better mechanism to focus us in on what we really want out of life, then reflecting on our own impending end.
Keeping death at the forefront of your mind is one of the best ways to ensure you live the life you want to live.
When the stability of your identity and the structure of your life disappear at the same time, it’s easy to see how chaos often ensues.
Stories are central to our nature. We literally cannot do or feel anything without creating an accompanying narrative. Without such stories, we feel lost.
When the time comes to move on from a passion, it is imperative that you take control of your story. You must tell yourself a story about yourself that goes beyond seeing your passion as the sole source of your fulfillment and identity.
The only thing that shapes your identity more than the pursuit of your passions is your internal narrative: the story you tell yourself about yourself. How you write your story largely determines how you’ll feel and what you’ll do when you move on from a passion. If you can take control and write your story, you can take control of and write your life.
Mindlessly living with a passion can be extremely harmful and destructive. Mindfully living with a passion can be the key to a life well lived.
Passion is perhaps the most overwhelming emotion there is. Whether it’s a gift or a curse — that’s largely up to you.