Written by Christopher Kelly
May 29, 2019
Christopher: Brad, thank you so much for joining me here today in rainy Oakland. What is up with that? It's May and we got rain in California. I think I'm going back to London.
Brad: Oh no, don't leave so fast.
Christopher: I really appreciate you having me here today. The reason I'm here is because you have a very cool, new book. The reason I discovered your book was because our performance psychologist, Simon Marshall, recommended it to one of our clients and I have had such an incredible journey in education by reading all of the books that Simon recommends to our clients. This has been absolutely incredible and I will resist the temptation to reel off the list of books, but The Passion Paradox was one of those books and it really was a revelation to me. The self-help genre is really hard to navigate and I'm so glad that I have Simon, but I thought we might start by talking about the book and talking about your own personal journey. I understand at one point, you made it all the way to the White House. Can you talk about how that happened? Where did it start? Who were you with? What happened?
Brad: I was not there as the president, God forbid. That would be terrifying. When I first finished undergraduate school, I took a job at a large international consulting firm called McKinsey & Company and I absolutely love the work. It was such a neat opportunity for me, then age 22, to be working with really high level thinkers and problem-solvers and in boardrooms with these C-level people that are running enormous organizations, and in some cases, governments. A lot of my work at McKinsey was focused on healthcare. There was a particular partner that I really admired and that I had worked with that took a job with Barack Obama at the White House and this was right around the time of the Accountable Care Act, so health reform was being passed.
Bob got there. That was the name of the partner. Dr. Bob, I call him, and was just -- I wouldn't say totally overwhelmed, but it's a really hard gig. He was in charge of healthcare for the National Economic Council and I remember him calling me and basically saying, "Hey, do you want to come work with me at the White House?" At that point in my life, I knew that I was going to go back to graduate school to continue my education, so there was a natural transition anyways and it seemed like a really good opportunity, so I said, "Yes, let's do it." I spent a little under four months with the National Economic Council and this would've been back in 2010.
Christopher: What was it like?
Brad: It was neat. Again, I feel like it was a lifetime ago, but there was definitely some of the star-struck nature just seeing these individuals that you would see on television and being there with them. It was also horribly inefficient. It was very interesting coming from McKinsey & Company, which is a very fast-paced work environment, into the government and I would've thought that even at that highest level of government, maybe things would move pretty quickly, but it's a very different kind of organization where there are clearly politics and consensus-building, so things actually moved a lot more slowly there than they had when I was at McKinsey & Company.
Christopher: How did it end? Why did it end?
Brad: I guess it ended primarily because I was going back to graduate school. There was a defined period that I would be helping out at the National Economic Council at the White House before going back to school. Prior to that, I think that there was definitely -- and I write about this in both my books -- there was a buildup now, looking back on it, that led to burnout more so at McKinsey & Company than at the White House, to be honest, but just the inability to turn it off both physically and then also psychologically. For a short period of time, that led to really outstanding performance, but as I started to -- I guess over time, the performance was still pretty good, good enough to get me that gig at the White House, but I started having some physical symptoms and psychological symptoms that again, I had no idea what was happening at the time, but looking back on it now, it was pretty clear that I was on a path towards burnout.
It was actually very fortunate that I was going back to graduate school to (a) avert really getting deep in the hole and then (b) study public health with a particular interest on wellness, so I was able to learn about the path that I was walking down and do my best to course-correct. Now, I've made a career helping other people course-correct, writing about this topic, and trying to pull out some of the nuance. Burnout is such a hot topic in how they discuss the word, but very few people, I think, are peeling back the onion to say, well, is this a syndrome of other conditions? Is this its own thing? Is it about working too much? Is it about working for the wrong reasons? Is it about none of those things at all? That's the stuff that really interests me right now.
Christopher: So you wouldn't have been able to write The Passion Paradox before any of this happened then.
Brad: Yeah, that's right. I know that you've talked about mindsets on your podcast before, so Carol Dweck would be proud of me. The Growth Mindset version of this is all of this was training to do the work that I'm doing today and I do firmly believe that.
Christopher: Can you define passion for us?
Brad: Well, the first thing that I'll say is that in The Passion Paradox and the kind of passion that I've studied and written about is not romantic passion. It's passion that is for some sort of activity or pursuit. There are a lot of commonalities between activity-based passion and romantic passion, but I think that they're worth separating. Then in this activity, pursuit-based passion, I like to define it as the relentless pursuit of an endeavor with generally productive consequences. What's interesting is that the definition of addiction is the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences and that's a recurring theme throughout the book. It's one of the many paradoxes of passion, is that passion and addiction are really two sides of the same coin. What's happening psychologically, what's happening neurochemically when you are pursuing a passion versus when you're pursuing an addiction are actually quite similar. The only real difference is society says that the ends of a passion are productive whereas the ends of an addiction are destructive.
Christopher: Talk about how you go about finding your passion. I did an interview once with the Director of the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, Ken Ford. I love that interview. At the end of that podcast, he talked about finding your passion and he made this joke that you don't find it in your sock drawer. It's not like an object that you lost that you need to go find. I think you do a really good job in The Passion Paradox. Can you talk about how one goes about finding the passion?
Brad: There's a common myth and there's actually some research that shows just how common this myth is that you find your passion and it's like lightning striking. It's in your sock drawer. Suddenly, this is my calling. This is the thing that I was meant to do. There's some pulling that indicates that over 75% of people in America believe that that is how passion will happen to them. It's called the fit mindset of passion. They feel like they'll just find this activity that is a perfect fit that feels great right away. What the research also shows is that that's not how passion actually comes to be. Individuals that have long-term, sustainable passions, they do not report when they look back that they were passionate about that thing right away. What they were doing is that they were just following their interests. They're pursuing things that they were curious about and over time, those things emerged into passion.
This sounds like a trivial distinction, but it's not because if you have the expectation that you are going to magically find your passion and you are expecting to just find this activity or this career or this hobby that feels immediately outstanding from the get-go, you're always going to be searching because that thing probably doesn't exist, and if it does exist, the minute that the honeymoon period is over at the first sign of challenge or distress, you'll just say, "Oh, this must not be my passion. I'm going to move on from it." This is one of the areas where activity-based passion is very similar to romantic passion. Individuals that believe that there's a one and only soulmate for them are far more likely to stay single than individuals that believe that love is cultivated over time because with the soulmate mindset, same thing, especially today with all these online dating apps. If your expectation is something is going to feel immediately perfect right away then you're going to constantly be searching for that immediately perfect thing when in fact, both in romantic passion and in activity-based passion, very rarely does something feel perfect right away. Perfect emerges over time and it comes from pursuing your interests, being curious, and giving things time and space to unfold.
Christopher: I think the world of dating highlights your point perfectly and I think I learned this lesson the hard way actually with okay, cupid, I go on all these dates and I'd meet these women typically for coffee where we are here in Oakland, in coffee shops, and exactly. In the beginning, you walk in and you're like, "Oh shit." You're tempted to back out or climb out the toilet window or something like that. Then after a while, you realize that it's just not going to happen like that. I felt like I learned it the hard way. It's only when you give up. That's what it felt like for me. I just gave up. It's having expectations. Accidentally, I started nurturing a relationship and that woman is now my wife.
Brad: Yeah, and that's how it goes. Certainly, that's my relationship with writing, which my wife would tell you is like my second marriage to my work as a writer. When I started writing, there was no part of me that said, "Oh, I'm going to write as a career" or even that I love this.
It was more just, "Huh. It's really neat to reflect on things on the page. What would it look like to have a blog?" so then I had a blog that no one but me read, but it forced me to write regularly. At least in my own mind, I felt accountable to the blog, so I wrote in a blog, then I started pitching magazines. Far removed from my brain was I'm going to be a writer. It was just this interest that I was following and it was probably a good four years before I regularly started getting paid to do the work I had been doing, and before, I would say that I was passionate about it, which is so different from the message from so many people here in the self-help genre or at commencement speeches, which is you've got to find your passion. Well, for fuck's sake -- excuse my French. You can edit that out if you need to or we can keep it in there because that's how I feel.
Christopher: No, we definitely swear on this podcast.
Brad: Yeah. Well, then I'll go back. For fuck's sake, if you are expecting that you're just going to stumble into this thing that is perfect right off the bat, you're going to be in seeking mode. That is so different than being a practitioner because a practitioner, you're actually doing the thing. You're cultivating it. You're developing it. You give it time and space. If things don't feel great right away, that's okay, whereas if you're in seeking mode, as I said, the minute things don't feel great, it's on to the next thing. I think so many people get stuck in this perpetual cycle of trying to find their passion whereas if the mindset was, "I need to develop my passion," they'd probably have a better chance of landing on it.
Christopher: You had some advice in the book and it reminds me of a joke that one of my friends at the university had. It went something along the lines of three words that's going to have a profound impact and increase your future happiness, and that is "lower your expectations". I think it might be a Simpsons joke. I'm sure someone listening to this will know which episode of the Simpsons that was in. It might be, it might not, but it's actually pretty good advice, so to lower your expectations from, "Chi-ching! This is it, I found it" to "Oh, this is kind of interesting," right?
Brad: Yup, and then give yourself permission to pursue your interest.
Christopher: That's fantastic. Talk to me about -- I really wanted you to talk about how this related -- okay, so we found our passion. Let's say you dove into something and it's effortless. The work is effortless. You really feel like you found something special. How does this eventually lead to burnout? That's the question. Why would it?
Brad: This is the second paradox of passion. There are so many. The first -- or maybe it's the third. It depends on what order we're going. The first paradox of passion is this passion addiction, which I'm going to come back to. The second is that you don't actually find your passion; you cultivate it. The third is that passion is a gift. It can be great. It can feel effortless. It can you into flow, that state of being totally in the zone, but passion can also be a curse. What tends to happen is this. Individuals start out cultivating a passion and they really love the activity, and they do the activity because they love it. They do it more and more often then they start to suddenly have good results. People recognize them for their good results. They get external validation. The human brain craves external validation. What often happens without people ever realizing it is that they end up becoming more passionate about the external validation they get from the activity than the activity itself. They love retweets more than writing articles. They love being interviewed more than competing in the sport. They love the idea of being promoted into the C-suite more than they like the actual work.
This is the distinction between what psychologists call obsessive passion and harmonious passion. Harmonious passion is when you love the activity for the process of doing the thing itself. Obsessive passion is when you fall more in love with all the external stuff than the actual activity. Harmonious passion is strongly associated with life satisfaction, peak performance, and well-being. Obsessive passion is strongly associated with depression, anxiety, burnout, and unethical behavior. Now, I've yet to meet someone that is squarely 100% harmonious passion. These things totally exist on a spectrum. It feels good to get external validation and it feels good to do good work. It feels good to share that work. The problem becomes when that is what's pulling the wagon, not your love for the activity itself.
In my own life and in the coaching clients I work with and in the book as well, I come out not saying you need to be squarely harmonious passion, but that the majority of your passion should come from within. Even if that's 51% to 49%, that's still probably okay. Better would be 60-40, but I think that again, talk about high expectations, what I don't want is people to read the book or listen to this and think that I must be like a Zen monk where I'm only internally motivated and I don't care at all about any of the external stuff.
Christopher: That's not realistic.
Brad: Not realistic. You're going to set yourself up for self-judgment and failure, but I think it's so important to start to realize and to be honest with yourself about when the external stuff is staking too great a claim in your brain and when that's pulling you more than you want it to be.
That's a quick route to burnout because that external stuff, it's outside of your control and it's like weather patterns. If you're constantly at the whims of the direction that the wind is blowing, you're going to burn out. "Oh, I was great at this meeting today" or "My supervisor gave me a great performance review" or "I didn't do well." "This race went really well." "The weather was bad, so I didn't race well." The story got a million link clinks. "Oh, the story I thought was going to do great didn't do great." That is just frenetic energy that blows you around and if that's what you become passionate about, people get really tired of being blown around in that way whereas if you can keep your passion, at least the majority of it, focused on the actual activity that you're doing, that you have full control over, you can feel much more rooted and you can stay fulfilled, happy, perform well over time regardless of the change of weather patterns.
Christopher: I find this a very convincing explanation of some of the otherwise very difficult to understand examples that we see in the world. One of the people that you write about in the book is Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Can you talk about that?
Brad: Yes. Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos is a great example. She is the epitome of obsessive passion. Now, presumably, she didn't start out this way. I do not think that Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of school to say, "I'm going to commit massive fraud." She wanted to change the world. She had really good intentions. She was a very, very smart gal. Elizabeth Holmes went into this line of work at Theranos where they were going to have a very specialized pin-prick blood test that was going to be able to give you results faster and much cheaper, yada, yada, yada.
Elizabeth Holmes was super passionate. She was on the cover of multiple magazines. The Washington Post wrote an article that I reference in the book where she straight up says that her passion and obsession is one of her greatest, if not her greatest, asset. What happened was Elizabeth Holmes started getting all of this external validation and all of this recognition. Her passion shifted from the science and from launching this company to make the world a better place to being seen and being perceived as an icon or mogul of technology. That led her to ultimately unethical behavior because in her case, when you tie your identity and your passion so strongly to the external result of something, when the results start going poorly -- in her case, the market speculation was ahead of the science -- you do anything you need to do to close that gap, so she lied.
Another great example of this not mentioned in the book, but it's come up in conversation since, is Lance Armstrong. Same thing, Lance Armstrong, super passionate about cycling, a phenomenal cyclist, got sucked into the external validation so much to the point that he was willing to cheat when he wasn't winning, which is so different from someone that stays true to the actual activity itself. If Elizabeth Holmes would've gotten her fulfillment not out of being Silicon Valley's mogul but out of actually doing interesting science, my guess is Theranos would still be in business and probably doing good things. If Lance Armstrong would've been able to keep the majority of his drive based on how good of a cyclist he could be, not based on if he's beating everyone else, my guess is Lance Armstrong wouldn't have cheated. I think that these are really good examples to show you that -- I firmly don't think that -- Lance Armstrong or Elizabeth Holmes, I don't think they're bad people. I think that they got sucked into this trap in their extreme examples, but this happens on smaller scales all the time.
Christopher: Absolutely. You're reminding me of a conversation that Simon had with David Bailey and they were talking about doping in masters athletes, the age grouper, where obviously there's really nothing at stake. What would you win? A stupid medal, maybe your money back that you pay to enter the race. There's really nothing on the line, and yet still masters athletes choose to dope in order to hopefully get better results and I think this goes a long way to explain it.
Brad: Yeah, it is, and again, it's this need for external validation and for achievement to feel whole versus being okay with just doing the activity itself. What's interesting is it's one thing to intellectually understand this. It's another thing to do something about it. That's why in the book, I really tried to be heavy on the actual practices because understanding this, it's good. It's a start to be able to realize I'm being pulled by external validation, but it's often not enough to actually make sure that your passion stays harmonious.
Of all the practices in the book, the one that I find the most helpful is what I call the 24 to 48-hour rule, and I just love this. What that rule says is that in the activity that you're passionate about, anytime you have an enormous success or a terrible defeat, give yourself 24 to 48 hours to celebrate the success or grieve the defeat, but then get back to doing the actual work itself.
The more time that you spend feeling like the man or the woman because you did great or feeling really crappy because you did poorly on some external measure, the stronger those roots are going to sink into your brain and you're going to start caring more and more about that stuff, whereas if you get back to doing the actual work, you remind yourself in a very visceral, embodied way that what you actually love is doing the work itself.
To put my own skin in the game, a prime example for me is when I write a story that does really well. There's a temptation to sit there on Twitter and refresh and see how many people are sharing it and stay up on the conversation about the story. I recognize that temptation. I can't think my way out of it because it's a really strong pull, so I act my way out of that. What for me that means is I say great, for 24 hours, I'm just going to let myself get drunk on all this external validation, but then after 24 hours, I'm going to go to the coffee shop I always write at, I'm going to turn off my internet browser, I'm going to look at the blank page and I'm going to start writing again. Ten minutes into that process, I could care less about what's happening out in the world because what I actually like doing is the writing, same thing for after a really crappy loss.
My first book, Peak Performance, there was a lot of hope at my publishing house that it was going to be a New York Times bestseller. I got my hopes up. It wasn't. It sucked. I let myself feel bad about it for a few hours and then I said, "Well, I need to practice what I preach. Stop moping. Get back to doing the work." It's so simple yet it can be really, really hard.
Christopher: Why didn't it become a New York Times bestseller? I've heard that that's kind of a game that is quite hard to play. Talking about the weather and things that are outside of your control, that's probably one of them, right?
Brad: This just goes to show -- it's so funny because I'm an "expert" on this topic, but I'm not immune to it, so I knew that all along that those lists are extremely hard to land on and there are all kinds of variables in the black box that puts a book on that list, but I still cared about it because you want to be on it. The second time around, I caught myself caring much less about it, so it's also just an experience that maybe you have to live through. To your actual question, I'm not sure how books get on there. It's copies sold, but it's copies sold in certain bookstores and people try to buy their way into the list. It's funny. It just goes to show how human I am. It's a really shitty proxy if it's a good book and I know it, yet because it's the New York Times, I still care and I don't judge myself for caring. I just recognize and realize when I'm starting to care too much and then I force myself to shift away from that and get back to doing the actual work.
Christopher: I'm sure your friends and family ask you about that, "So did that book get on the New York Times bestseller? Did it?" and you're like, "Ah!"
Brad: So close, maybe not even close. Who knows?
Christopher: What do you know about the biology that drives this behavior? I find that incredibly interesting. I'm a huge fan of evolutionary psychology maybe and ancestral health. I love looking at biology through the lens of evolution. Why is it that humans would behave in this way?
Brad: We are programmed to behave in this way. If you think about why our species is here today, it's because we behave in this way. Let me explain for a minute. Thousands of years ago back on the Serengeti when our species was evolving, if we had a big kill and we had food, we couldn't just be content with having that food because not the figurative weather, but the literal weather back then could change and there could be famine. So we had to evolve to keep on wanting to push, to keep on wanting more and more and more. If we didn't want more and more and more, you get selected out because the next time that there's famine, you don't eat.
This neurochemical that is very, very strong in humans is called dopamine and dopamine does not make you feel good about accomplishment. It makes you feel good about the chase. It makes you crave the chase. Again, way back then when we were evolving, if you crave the chase, you're going to keep working to find more food. If you find more food, you're going to have a better chance of surviving and pass on your DNA. Our species, we're pushers. We have this innate part of us in our neurochemistry that is wired to be passionate, to push for more and more and more, not to be content. At least for me and in the book where I go into great detail, I think there's some real power in knowing that and accepting that and then saying, "Okay. If I struggle to be content, how can I make sure that I point this energy in productive directions?" That's the difference between harmonious passion versus obsessive passion. If that energy is all about the next external thing, the next paycheck, the next raise, the next promotion, whatever it is in the ego contest then it's going to lead to suffering whereas if that energy is pointed at doing things in alignment with your purpose because you actually love the work itself, that will lead to a pretty fulfilling life.
What's fascinating is the root of the word "passion" is "passio" which means suffering, so this is something that modern science is just now shedding light on, but our ancestors have known this for a long time that passion is like fire, a rocket fuel, and if it's pointed in the right direction, it'll take you to the moon. If it's pointed in the wrong direction, it'll take to the core of the earth in a bad way.
Christopher: I think you use this term in the book "hedonic adaptation" and I've heard Simon use the phrase "the hedonic treadmill".
Brad: Yeah, never enough, never enough. Hedonic adaptation is just that. You very quickly adapt to your current state of happiness, so whatever you have might feel like enough for a day, but then you always want more. One Olympic medal; nope, I need two. I finally hit 1000 followers on Twitter; nope, I need 2000.
Christopher: Lost ten pounds.
Brad: Yup. Now, I want 15. My podcast has 200,000 downloads. It feels great for a day. Now, I want 300,000. Again, I think that self-judgment never helps. I've never met someone that doesn't feel this way. I think that trying to totally repress it just makes it stronger. I think my advice and my practice is to recognize we're wired like this. Yup, there I am wanting more. Reflect on that and then behave in a way that's more in alignment with my values so I don't get on that treadmill. Again, I love when modern science and ancient wisdom converges, but long before hedonic adaptation was a term thrown around by modern behavioral scientists, the Buddha literally called this exact same cycle "suffering".
Christopher: You're reminding me -- I interviewed a clinical psychologist. Her name is Ashley Mason, and in that interview, she said it's a bit like Santa Claus. You can't unknow that Santa Claus is not real. Once you know, you know. If you know that the hedonic treadmill is a thing like, "Oh, there I am. I'm doing that thing again," you can't unknow that. So the temptation for me right now is to ask you, "What do I do about that? How do I stay off the hedonic treadmill?" but maybe just knowing is enough.
Brad: I think knowing is a good first step. I think this notion of getting back to the work is really helpful. Another thing that I discuss a lot in the book is just paying attention. If you pay attention really closely to how or what you're doing makes you feel, you can rig that feedback loop. Let me use myself as an example so I'm not making listeners feel bad. I'll just make myself feel bad.
For me, the hedonic treadmill as a writer often occurs with looking for external validation on social media. Is this story being discussed? Is it being shared? Is the book selling? All these kinds of very concrete metrics of performance. Uploading my social media feeds, it's like candy. In the short-term, it feels really good because I get that hit of dopamine, but if I pay attention to how I feel in the long-term after spending even just an hour refreshing this crap -- I say "crap" because I feel gross. I feel disgusted. If you pay attention to that, your mind-body system knows and the next time you're tempted to do it, you've got this counterforce to the ego candy, that craving, "Oh, I want to see how it's doing" which is, "Oh, last time you got sucked in the rabbit hole and spent two hours refreshing your Twitter, you felt kind of hollow and empty at the end of the day. Maybe you should go eat some brown rice instead of the candy."
I think paying attention is super helpful. Again, it's a big theme in the book. It's something I work on with my own coaching clients. If you really pay deep attention to how certain behaviors make you feel -- the reward-based learning system. You do something and it makes you feel a certain way. If it makes you feel good, you do it again. If it makes you feel crappy, you stop. That's a strong system. I think a lot of people struggle because there are all these things in modern technology that make it hard to really pay attention to how something makes you feel, but if you can tap into that, it's a self-guided way of learning what makes you feel good and what doesn't, not to say that I'm immune from it. Every once in a while, I still fall in the social media rabbit hole, but I feel gross after. I note that feeling and them I'm less likely to have that behavior happen again.
Christopher: You reminded me of Ellen Langer's work. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Ellen Langer, but the essence of it is, is that noticing is good for your health.
Christopher: It's really hard with social media. For me, the exact same thing happens to me, but I find I lack the motivation to do deep work in coding. I'll be searching for shallow work to do.
Brad: Yeah. I think again it's brown rice versus candy. What I mean by that is it's easier to start eating candy, but after two hours, you probably wish that you're eating brown rice for the whole two hours and not candy. I feel like deep work, and in that example, it's kind of like brown rice. The first few bites aren't going to taste as good as candy, but once you're in the zone, you're going to feel really nourished where you would never feel that way if all you're eating is candy.
Christopher: Talk about living the balanced life.
Christopher: Next question.
Brad: When asking people and reporting for my book, what the word "balance" brings up for them, most people answer that it's equal things in equal proportion. You wake up. You walk the dog. You take the kids to school. You make lunch. You go to work. You work from nine to five. Maybe you exercise for half an hour. You come home. You have dinner. You watch a TV show and then you repeat. Some people -- and this is completely values-neutral. For some people, that is a really good way to live life. Other people, they feel like they're going through the motions and balance turns into going through the motions.
I think that rather than strive to be balanced, it's actually to identify the things that you care about, that you're passionate about, and then give yourself permission to go all in on those things. It's okay to be terribly unbalanced so long -- and this is a big so long -- so long as you have enough self-awareness to evaluate the trade-offs and the sacrifices that you're making to go all in. There are times and seasons to go all in on things and there are times and seasons to go all in on other things.
What's really interesting -- and this is something that I've spoken about with Rich Rohl, who I know you know and also admire -- is rather than think about balance every day, maybe think about balance over the course of a lifetime. There might be a season where you are all in on writing and that might be one year, five years, ten years. There might be a season where you are all in on parenting, same thing. I don't know how long that is. There might be a season where you're actually all in on leisure and you go all in on maybe six things over the course of a life, and at any one point in time, you actually look terribly unbalanced, but when you zoom out, you're quite balanced. Instead of having this superficial engagement in different things, you really get to go deep.
I'm a big believer that the pathway to flow, the pathway to really love is to care about something and go deep on it. Now, it's not to say that you need to do that to the exclusion of everything else. I think you can totally go deep on relationships and go deep on a vocation or deep on training for sport and deep on a vocation. I just think it's hard to try to have everything at once. What ends up happening is again, you set yourself up for frustration, going through the motions. You're doing ten different things, all sub-par, when you could be doing one to three things really well, and doing one to three things really well tends to make people self-rapport feeling better.
Christopher: So what you're all in on -- that's a phrase that I hear all the time from clients. Now, when I learned about something and I decided that I'm interested in it, I go all in, but one of the things that you're all in on at the moment -- I know we have a boy exactly the same age, 15 months, which is a weird coincidence, so obviously you're very passionate about writing and then obviously you're very passionate about being a father. How do you balance? There's that word again.
Brad: Right. Maybe it's like boundaries and I'd say that those are the two things for me. It's my writing and then parenting. The way that I think about it is that when I'm focusing on writing and when I'm focusing on work, that is the sole focus. When I'm with my son, Theo, that is the sole focus. There are some really tight boundaries there. For me, it tends to be when Theo comes home from daycare, I'm off. We're talking earlier before I went online, I took internet and stuff off my phone so I would close my computer and then that's it and I'm with my son for the rest of the night. Over the course of a day even, there's a period where I'm all in there and then I'm all in on work. What I'm not doing is during the day sending my family pictures of Theo, going on Facebook and posting about him, thinking about him, worrying about him. During the day, I am focused on my work, but at night, I'm not trying to sneak in a Tweet while I'm playing with him. I'm just with Theo and my wife.
There's a reckoning that during this season of my life, I'm probably not as great of a friend as I could be to other friends and probably not as great of a family member as I could be to extended members of my family. I do my best to carve out time where I can really focus on that, but it's hard to do everything at once. Again, this is like the self-help crap that I hate and that I'm trying to reverse in this book, is the culture makes you think that you should do everything at once and you should be great at everything at once, but you can't. So my philosophy -- and some may agree with me -- is to have a reckoning about that and then try to prioritize and choose what matters most to you now, realize that it will change, regularly evaluate that stuff, and then do the things that matter most to you and don't apologize for it.
Christopher: I'm sensing a theme here in the podcast. We've talked before about the idea of polarized training.
Brad: Yeah, periodization.
Christopher: You're either going hard or you're not, but not the middle ground. Then James Hewitt talked with Tommy about the cognitive middle gear. You're either going hard or you're not, which is basically what you just said. I'm pretty sure that I'm occupying the parenting middle gear.
Brad: Yeah. Well, you have two kids, so I'm not there yet. It is funny how parenting just changes the game. In my first book, Peak Performance, there's a whole lot on the importance of sleep and I didn't know it until I had a kid, but I was kind of attached to both the physical need of sleep. I think we all are, but also the idea of sleep. Theo, for the first three months of his life, maybe a little bit longer, totally blew that up. What I learned was that there's a time and a place to just kill your attachments because not sleeping sucked enough, but then freaking out that I wasn't sleeping, that sucked even worse.
I think again, this is something that self-help writing makes you feel like "I've got to do this. Or else, I'm going to stink." It can feel pretty rigid, but I think an overarching theme with all of this is again, back to what I said earlier, the self-awareness and knowing that there are different seasons and being okay with releasing from the agenda. With passion in particular -- that's obviously top of mind for me right now -- it's really hard to be self-aware in the midst of pursuing a passion because of that dopamine response that's just pushing you ahead. The word that I like to use is inertia. It feels like you're just being swept along in this inertia or you're in a storm. Self-awareness is the ability to see outside of the storm because when you're in the storm, it's very hard to objectively evaluate trade-offs, but if you can create some distance between yourself and your passion then you can look a little bit more broadly and say, "Do I really want to be sacrificing time with friends? Do I really want to be sacrificing time with family to do this?"
Christopher: So it's constantly reevaluating.
Brad: Yeah, and doing it in an honest way. There's some fascinating research that I cover in the book that shows that individuals that are in desire, are in passion, pursuing passions, the activity in their brain and the changes in their brain are very similar to someone that is suffering from an eating disorder. Someone that is suffering from an eating disorder, when they look in the mirror, they don't see somebody that is gaunt. They see somebody that is overweight. Somebody that is in the midst of a passion, when they look at their life, they don't see all the things that they're neglecting. They just see that they should be putting more time into their passion. So it's a practice to be able to step outside of that inertia and actually have the self-awareness to realize I'm spending way too much time in this, or even within a passion to be able to evaluate this passion is getting a little bit too obsessive because if you just leave that to its own devices, what will happen is your brain will take the path of least resistance, which is not having self-awareness, not making good trade-offs, and pursuing obsessive passion. So you have to make a practice out of identifying these things, reflecting on them, course-correcting when appropriate.
Christopher: How do you handle what I might call external vulnerabilities? You might have a coach of athletes that isn't that athletic or somebody handing out nutritional advice that isn't that slender. Do people look at you as like, "Oh well, Brad is the guy that always performs. He's just not fallible. He's not going to fall foul of any of this stuff." Is that something that affects you at all?
Brad: It did for a period of time, but those people are just going to be disappointed. I put on my pants every morning too. I'm a big believer in the things that I write about, but I don't write about them because I have them figured out. I write about them to figure them out. I'm just as interested in figuring this stuff out for myself as I am for readers, so I'm along the same journey as my readers. Some areas of the things I write about, I'm farther along the path, and in other areas, I'm still a true beginner. I think that vulnerability is really important. I think that so many people again in this self-help genre, they have all these hacks and they present themselves like they're Superman or they're Superwoman and they have it altogether. To me, that's a sign that you should run the opposite direction from someone because if someone is not struggling with what they're working on then (a) they're probably not pushing themselves that hard, and (b) they're probably lying to you because we're humans. We struggle.
Christopher: Yeah. I sometimes think that the best teacher is somebody that learned this six months ago. "I can relate to where you're at because I was doing the exact same thing six months ago" I think is kind of a powerful concept.
Brad: Totally, and the humility to realize at least in my case that I'll probably be doing the same things six months later. There's this beautiful quote. It's an unattributed quote from an old Japanese Zen teacher that talks about practice. She says that the way practice works is that we build our practice up and then it falls apart, and then we build it back up and then it falls apart again and that's just the way it goes. I think that's true.
Christopher: Yeah. You're reminding me of the transtheoretical model, the stages of change. It's a cycle like what the heck? Why is relapse in this thing? Well, that's what happens. It's a model of what happens.
Brad: It gets back to what Ellen Langer said just about paying attention. I think that whether you're pursuing a passion, whether you are in a rut, whether you feel like you're on top of the world, I think just paying attention to how you're feeling and why you're feeling, that's a really good conduit to realizing what's good for you and what's not and that things aren't permanent. When you're in a rut, things are going to change. When you're on top of the world, that's going to change too.
Christopher: Do you think this book could help somebody that is suffering from what you might call a midlife crisis? Could you define what you think a midlife crisis is and how The Passion Paradox might help that person suffering from one?
Brad: I hope so. It's funny. I was just talking about midlife crisis with one of my best friends who's 38 who says that he's been in midlife crisis for the last six years and he said the new midlife crisis happens at 30. I don't know about that, but the way that I would define a midlife crisis is a reckoning with mortality and death and a questioning of who am I and what's the point of this all. What am I doing? Why am I spending my time with what I'm doing? I think that people reach that point and it can be really discombobulating to both confront your mortality on the one hand, and on the other hand, confront the fact that maybe you're not spending your time how you want to be spending your time or maybe you're not living in alignment with your core values. Maybe you haven't even reflected on what those core values are and you don't know what you want to live in alignment with to begin with.
I think that the book is helpful. The Passion Paradox is helpful for individuals that might be going through this because it's a pretty soft, compassionate book. Hopefully, listeners can tell from this interview. I don't think I have it all figured out. I've been there. I've been in that discombobulated place. Like I just said, I'll probably be there again, but when you're in that place, you can be kind to yourself and there are so many different ways out of that place. The book recommends a very incremental approach, as we discussed earlier, to finding a passion, same thing to following a passion. It's funny. The subtitle of the book, the publisher was really keen to use the words "go all in", but what the book actually says about cultivating a passion is that you want to do it very incrementally. Again, another falsehood or myth in the self-help literature is that you should just quit your day job.
Christopher: I was going to ask you about that.
Brad: No, no, no, that's not true. There's all this research that I cover in the book that shows that you have a much better chance of success in shifting gears to a passion if you pursue it incrementally and on the side. I think that's really important for individuals in the midlife crisis. So if you identify, "Yikes! I'm going to die. I'm not necessarily doing what I want to be doing. Here's what I want to be doing," what self-help books are going to say is quit your job and do that.
What the research shows and what I recommend as a result of that research is actually don't quit your job because if you quit your job, you might do that for two weeks and then fail at that because you have all this pressure on yourself. I would take baby steps in that direction. Let it start out as a hobby. Let it start out as a side gig. Maybe go from working 100% in your job to working 80%, to working 70% and gradually pursue that thing until you get to a point where you have confidence based on evidence that if you do go all in, you're not going to set yourself up for failure. What happens when people go all in too prematurely is that they have this immense pressure often to pay rent, to meet their basic needs, so they start making sacrifices in the thing that they think that they love and then they no longer love it.
This is the writer that gets their first story published and then quits their day job to write full-time and then suddenly is writing click-bait articles and listicles because they have to get a paycheck to pay for rent. I'm a big believer -- and the research supports this -- in holding off on that temptation to just throw everything aside and go all in and actually pursue this and gradually be patient. Think of it, what would it look like to be all in five years from now?
Christopher: That's interesting you should bring that up. I've got a picture of me holding our daughter on the day that I came home from the hedge fund with the news that I was quitting. I quit my job to become a health coach and my wife was going, "That's great news, honey. I'm right there with you," but part of the reason I did that was I felt like I've gotten to a point where I just couldn't move this thing any further unless I quit my job. Another thing --
Brad: But you said you got to a point. What happened before that?
Christopher: Yeah, that's right. A lot of stuff happened on the side and actually, I got in trouble with that at work because I had signed an agreement with the firm that every line of code that I wrote belonged to them. I developed some custom software and a website in my spare time and technically, that belonged to them, so it was kind of a sticky situation where they weren't very happy about it.
Brad: Yeah, but I think it's important because -- so you had been building a thing on the side.
Christopher: Yeah. It didn't come out from nowhere for sure.
Brad: Yeah, and then you get to a point though where you do have to kind of go all in and that is great. The key thing is what do you do to get to that point? If you would've just said, "I can't do this anymore. I want to be a health coach," put in your two weeks' notice and then start to figure out what it means to be a health coach. You can be successful taking that rash of a step, but the research shows that most people aren't. Most people are successful kind of sneaking in the code on the side, getting a base, getting a starting point before they make the leap.
Christopher: Yeah. With hindsight, I would've been more careful about signing that contract, right? I didn't even think about it at the time.
Brad: Yeah. I don't want to get in trouble from people's employers, but I think that if you're finding that you're at your job and you feel like you're going through the motions, go ahead. Start your side gig. Maybe don't do it on company computers, but again, this isn't just my opinion. There's research that was covered in The Economist recently that shows that 40% of most white collar work is just wasted time, so fill that 40% with exploring a side hustle and see if that side hustle eventually becomes the thing that you do.
Christopher: Was that successful for you? Because you were doing consulting for McKinsey and now, you're a coach and a writer. You had a really interesting "the musts and the shoulds", which I thought was really nice.
Christopher: Have you been successful in incrementally changing over from the shoulds to the musts in your life?
Brad: Yeah, and it's been an eight-year journey even after McKinsey. I joined a healthcare system out here where I was doing consulting full-time and I very gradually went down from 100% to 90% to 80% and my "day job" is my writing and coaching picked up. It was actually only a few months before this book came out that for the first time on paper, the majority of my income and the majority of my time was spent writing and coaching, not consulting. I'll probably still always do a little bit of consulting work partly because I like it, but also because having that thing that's always going to be there can feel really safe, so yeah, it's been like an eight-year journey to the point where now, I can say I'm a writer and I also coach, not I'm a consultant. If I would've just jumped in writing the first time I was published and got paid whatever -- it was $150 for my first article -- I don't think I would be here.
Christopher: Yeah. Interesting. I don't think these things are static either. My version of that is at some point in time, I said I really must help other people achieve what I've achieved with my health and performance, but I should write code. I live in Silicon Valley. That's my safety net. If NBT doesn't work out, I can just go get another job as a coder, no big deal, and so I've continued to improve that skill and use it over time so I'm not super -- it's five years since I've written a line of code, should the worst ever happen. Since then, I've fallen in love with coding again. I really do enjoy doing that too. When it stopped being a "I should do this," it becomes more appealing for some reason. I can't really figure that out.
Brad: I love how you said that there's -- I forgot the exact word you just used, but there's some seasonality to this and being flexible, I think, is good. There's nothing in the book or the research that says that you should just have one passion. Again, you might have a passion now that five years from now isn't. You may have a different passion. Something else that comes out quite a bit in the book is passion is not -- it's more of like a personality or a temperament than it is passion for one specific thing. To me, cultivating passion is about cultivating energy and drive to pursue things that make you tick in a productive way. It's not about "I want to be the best power lifter," "I want to be the best triathlete," "I want to be the best coach," "I want to be the best writer." Those are all just objects that you point passion at, but once you have passion and you know how to use it, you can point it at all different kinds of things at different parts of your life.
Christopher: You said something in the book, which I loved, which was don't try and be the best. Try and be the best at getting better.
Brad: Yeah, that's it.
Christopher: Awesome. It's like a tiny tweak, but it's all the difference.
Brad: That is just so important. Not to get too woo-woo here, but to walk the path of mastery. Mastery does not know any end. The end of mastery is when you die, so if you think that you're going to be the best, well, that's like an arrival point, but there is no arrival point, so just keep on growing. Just keep on being the best at getting better and be willing to take interesting turns and follow those interests.
Christopher: What advice would you give to somebody who is already at that burnout place?
Brad: First, I'd say it's hard. I'd say don't judge yourself. Try not to get into the negative cycle of rumination where "I can't believe I'm feeling this way. I've got all my needs met yet I'm still feeling like crap. I'm a terrible person." That self-judgment just makes things worse. I would say -- and I think this is important to say -- that if you're truly struggling to get out of bed in the morning, if you're having thoughts about self-harm, I would immediately get help from a therapist. I think that burnout and depression and anxiety, these are related syndromes. Self-help works, but sometimes you actually need other help beyond self-help. If you do feel like you're in a place where you're safe to work on coming out of this yourself, I would say give yourself time and space and realize that there's such strong habit energies that got you to where you are that you're not going to undo them overnight and you're going to have the same urges. You might take a week off and feel great, but then you get back to work and it's all that same energy that's pushing you to work nonstop and be a sucker for external validation and be anxious about external validation. A vacation doesn't fix that. It's a long journey to implement the practices that help hedge against that so that you can come out of it.
Christopher: What do you think about mentoring? I wanted you to talk about mentoring, so I'm doing that thing where I've read your book too well. Now, I'm trying to lead you around like a little dog to say the things that I've heard you say in the book. I'm sorry. I apologize for that.
Brad: No, no, no, you're bringing up great points in the book. I appreciate it. Mentoring is wonderful and coaching is wonderful. That's one of the best ways to get your spark back. For whatever it is that you're doing, when you work with someone else, you literally get beyond yourself, so the ego part of you that cares, that's not the focus. The focus is on this other person unless you're a real narcissist and you only want to be a mentor to that person that does as well, so you can say --
Christopher: [0:50:51] [Indiscernible]
Brad: Right. Yeah, that's beyond my scope. Even if you're a real narcissist, my guess is that if you were to start mentoring someone, maybe at first, you'd be like, "I'm only going to do this because it'll elevate my status." Once you see that person coming into their own and succeeding, you'll probably forget about yourself and that's an awesome feeling, to forget about yourself. The other thing that's great about mentoring is you get to see the work and your pursuit through more virgin eyes. It's really easy to get disgruntled when you've been doing something for a long time, but when you get to watch someone just settle into it, they're going to probably settle into it in a way that has energy and it's slightly different than how you did. It's so cliché to say this, but you learn just as much from the mentee as you're teaching them. Coaching, teaching, there are all these things that help one get outside of their self and I think all that stuff is really beneficial.
Christopher: Well, this had been wonderful, Brad. Thank you. I think that's a really good place to wrap up. The name of the book we've been talking about is The Passion Paradox by Brad Stulberg and your colleague whose name I've already forgotten. I'm sorry.
Brad: Steve Magness.
Christopher: Can you say a few words about Steve?
Brad: Yeah, I'd love to. I'm glad it's coming up. I wrote The Passion Paradox with Steve and I also wrote my first book, Peak Performance, with Steve. Steve comes at these topics from a little bit more of an athletics lens. He is a coach to a handful of Olympic-caliber long distance runners, and then he's also on staff at the University of Houston where he coaches runners. He's an exercise scientist. I tend to spend more of my time in psychology, philosophy, even maybe spirituality. The two of us realized that these two worlds that we're in are normally very siloed, but there's actually tons of overlap, so we started working together. We've written these books together. We've become just collaborative partners.
Christopher: Well, I very much appreciate it. After that interview with Ken Ford, I asked Simon if he could send me some papers to read on, this whole finding your passion thing, which he did, about 12 of them. I think they might have been all review papers and I don't think I got even halfway through the first abstract of one of them. I find his literature almost impenetrable in a way that I didn't find that other natural sciences -- like biochemistry, for example, I found much easier to get into than any of the psychological stuff.
Brad: Yeah, but what's interesting -- and this could be a whole other conversation maybe for a later day -- is a lot of these discreet fields are pointing towards the same truths and the same patterns.
Christopher: Yeah. There's one last question just before I let you go that one of our clients asked and I thought the same thing and I realized I missed it. I should've asked you this much earlier on.
Brad: Yeah, go for it.
Christopher: Do you see a similarity between the fit mindset and the fixed mindset? Carol Dweck described the fixed mindset, so this is the idea that some ostensibly trainable thing is actually fixed in time and space and can't be altered and it's false. It's not true. The classic example that our neurologist friend Josh Turknett talks about is I'm not a musical person. I couldn't possibly learn how to play the ukulele because I'm just not musical, and that's just false.
Brad: Yeah. That belief is going to get in the way more than your genetics or whatever it is.
Christopher: Right, and so the fit mindset in my mind seems kind of similar because it's the idea that -- it's just like I'm going to walk in there and it's going to be all sunshine and rainbows and she's going to be the one and I'll just know right away. It never changes.
Brad: It's very similar and it's most similar in the same way that the best intervention is just to know where that's a thing and to change your expectation. Carol Dweck's work, the way out of a fixed mindset is to realize that actually there's this different way of looking at something, which is your ability is not fixed. If you work at it, you might not become great, but you'll probably improve and you'll improve at least enough to see if it's something that you want to pursue that you might become great at. With passion, it's very much the same thing. The intervention is just realizing that a fit mindset and setting an expectation so high is actually the foremost thing that's going to get in your way of finding what you really want.
Christopher: That's great. Thank you. I will of course link to your website online. You're a Twitter person, so people can engage with you on Twitter.
Brad: Yeah. They can draw me into my obsessive rabbit hole. I am on Twitter. My username is @bstulberg.
Christopher: Okay. What about your coaching practice? Have you got any space in your coaching practice at the moment?
Brad: Yeah, I do. I have probably one or two openings, and in my coaching practice, I work predominantly with executives and entrepreneurs and I help them navigate their careers personally and professionally.
Christopher: Okay. That's great. Well, thank you very much for your time. I very much appreciate you.
Brad: Yeah, thank you. This is a wonderful conversation.
[0:55:31] End of Audio