The Passion Paradox: A Conversation with Brad Stulberg

Jon Jachimowicz is a doctoral candidate at Columbia Business School. In July 2019, he will join Harvard Business School as an assistant professor in the organizational behavior unit. One of his areas of research focuses on passion, so when he came across the recent book The Passion Paradox, he wanted to speak with co-author Brad Stulberg. Their conversation is below.

Brad Stulberg is a writer, performance coach, and coauthor (with Steve Magness) of an intriguing new book on the role of passion at the workplace in beyond—specifically, the ways in which it can be a double-edged sword. The book, The Passion Paradox, draws on scientific research and personal stories to illuminate how to discover and cultivate passion, and when passion can have beneficial or harmful outcomes. This conversation is lightly edited for clarity.

Jon Jachimowicz: One of the first things that came to mind when I read your book was the mantra that we hear in commencement addresses to “follow our passion.” This already assumes that people know what it is they are passionate about. But what if their response is, “But I don’t even know what I am passionate about?” What do you find is the right way to find out what it is that you’re passionate about?

Brad Stulberg: Or even worse than follow it, speakers advise graduates to “find your passion.” And this was some of the fascinating research that went into the book, that it’s actually that phrase, “find your passion,” that often sets people up for failure and frustration. Because if you expect to just magically fall into an activity that you feel immediately passionate about, and makes you feel immediately good, then what ends up happening is you might find something that might be great for a week or two, but then suddenly it gets hard, or you get frustrated, and then you assume, Well, this must not be the thing I’m passionate about, so I’ll try something else.

In the research, this is what’s called a fit mindset of passion. And a fit mindset of passion is just that. You think that you’re going to find something that’s the perfect fit. While the vast majority of people hold a fit mindset of passion, the research shows that a fit mindset of passion is associated less with people actually finding and pursuing a long-term passion. That’s because, again, if you have such a high expectation that it’s going to feel great from the get-go, then once that expectation isn’t met, you just assume, This must not be the thing for me.

If I were giving those commencement speeches, it would be much less about find your passion, and much more about follow your interests and cultivate passion. If you lower the bar from, “This is great, this is perfect, this is a great fit,” to, “This is something that’s interesting,” and then follow your interests and give things some time and space to unfold—that can lead to passion.

How important is it to pursue your passion? Is it the case that if I don’t pursue my passion then I can’t be successful?

I think it depends on how you define success. Robert Vallerand has done incredible work there. In his dualistic model of passion, he distinguishes between two types of passion. In harmonious passion, you are pursuing your passion because it reflects what it is that you care about, and as a result, you experience more satisfaction, meaning, and happiness.

“Follow your interests and give things some time and space to unfold—that can lead to passion.”

And then there’s something called obsessive passion, which is when you’re passionate about something but not because of the pursuit but because of some of the external validation that comes with it. So if your goal is some sort of external success, and you point your passion at that, in the long term it might make you less likely to fulfill that goal. That’s because you get caught up in obsessive passion, which is when the passion transitions from excitement about a particular activity to excitement for some external result. What can happen is, if you don’t see the result that you want, things like burnout, anxiety, depression, and even unethical behavior can creep in.

Another way to think about this is as process versus outcome. When you’re more obsessively passionate, you are more outcome-oriented—that is, your identity gets tied to the outcome you’re pursuing. But if you are harmoniously passionate, then you are more process oriented—that is, your identity gets tied to the process. What’s important here is that I can often control the process more than the outcome. And if my identity is tied more to the outcome than the process—and I can’t control the outcome—then that’s going to cause a lot of distress.

In the reporting that you’ve done for the book, what are the lessons that you’ve found about how we can go about following our passion?

I think that that’s one of the paradoxes of passion. We’re told to follow our passion, but it’s more like you want to have your passion follow you, or you want to control your passion so your passion doesn’t control you. The slippery slope we often see is that individuals go into an activity that they’re passionate about, they start performing well, and when they perform well, they get good external validation. And suddenly, without even noticing it, they’ve become more excited and more passionate about that external validation than about the activity itself. At that point, I would say they’re following their passion, they’re going wherever it takes them, but they no longer really have control over it, because now it’s based on something outside of themself.

We’re told to follow our passion, but it’s more like you want to have your passion follow you.

It’s important to keep coming back to the activity itself and to be self-aware enough to realize when suddenly it seems like you’re more at the whims of what’s happening externally, to go back to doing the work itself. To go back to reflecting on the core values. To really asking yourself, why am I in this? Do I like writing, or do I like being a bestselling author? And if the answer is the latter, then I think it requires some soul-searching and to wonder.

It’s important here to state that these are all on a spectrum. It’s not like you’re completely process or completely outcome. Most people feel good when they do well and when they’re recognized. I think it’s about keeping the majority of your motivation, and the majority of your energy, focused on the process, not outcome.

Let’s assume I’m following my passion—how am I able to maintain that? How can I make sure that things don’t go bad, that I don’t fall out of passion, or that my passion does not become obsessive?

There are a few big things to keep in mind. The first thing is this notion of coming back to the work or to the activity itself. I call it the 24-hour rule—although it certainly could be extended to the 48- or even the 72-hour rule—which is that after a big success or a bad failure, give yourself 24–48 hours to celebrate the success or grieve the defeat. But then, get back to doing the work itself. The longer that you stew in a loss or ride the dopamine high of a win, the more you are becoming addicted to that. Whereas if you go back to doing the work itself, it’s a very embodied way of reminding yourself that, Hey, what I really like is the activity, not all the fortune, fame, external validation from the activity. That’s certainly a big part of it.

Another part of it is to try to reflect continuously on your core values, or the things that you really use as guiding principles, and test: are the things you’re passionate about in alignment with your core values? And if they’re not, well, can you shape the activity so it is more aligned with your core values? Or maybe you move on from it.

Let’s say I’m in a job that I am not particularly passionate about. What would you advise I should do?

This is a multilayered question. There’s this notion of job crafting, which is working with your current role, your boss, to try to stay within your role, but shift so that you care about more things. Then there’s finding a new job or a new role. But for a lot of people, neither of those things are attainable. You have to be able to pay rent, have food on the table. It’s a pretty privileged thing to assume all of this mobility.

What’s important is maybe you’re not going to be able to express those core values or passion at work, and that’s fine. In that case, try to find another place to do it. Maybe that’s a hobby. Maybe that’s something that you do with family. My own career as a writer started as total hobby, a side gig. I was working at corporate jobs. It was good enough. I started writing on the side, and one thing led to another, and it was only over six years that I finally had the courage where now, writing is the primary source of my income.

Something you discuss in the book that I found fascinating is the idea of moving on from a passion. What do you think is key in deciding whether or not we should let a passion that we once had go, or whether we should find a way to resurrect it?

In the reporting process, and in the researching for the book, I saw that lots of people that were very passionate faced challenge and struggled when they were forced to move on from their chosen pursuit. This is most common in athletes, because athletes in particular have short careers, and they often don’t get to choose when it’s time to move on. Their bodies give out, and they can’t perform at the level they used to, so they’re forced to move on. Lots of athletes suffer from depression and anxiety and substance abuse when that time comes. It’s not just athletes. Entrepreneurs and people that are really career focused can struggle from some of the same challenges when it’s their time to move on. I saw that this was a big gap in the discussion of passion: everyone talks about being passionate, but no one says, which is so logical, that if you really care about something, and you invest your all into it, moving on from that thing is going to be really hard. There’s not enough conversation and not enough support around that.

“Everyone talks about being passionate, but no one says…that if you really care about something, and you invest your all into it, moving on from that thing is going to be really hard.”

Sometimes transitions are very direct, so maybe you go from an athlete to being a coach, or you go from being in a very high leadership operational role to being a mentor. Other times, it might be completely indirect. You go from an athlete to being an artist, because the next thing still affords you the ability to express yourself and fulfills what it is that you care about. The thing is to plan ahead for this transition. This is important on an individual level, and also on an organizational level. Organizations could be doing a lot more to support really passionate people during times of transition.

It’s about thinking in advance about how you’re going to be able to channel your drive elsewhere. Let me use an example from sports: LeBron James, the basketball superstar. A lot of people were shocked that he chose to go to the Lakers as a free agent, when he could have gone to all of these better teams. But LeBron is really interested in starting an entertainment venture that’s going to last beyond basketball. So I think LeBron made a great move. He’s like, “I’ve already won championships. I’ve done what I need to do as a basketball player. I want to keep playing, but I’m going to go to a geography where I can set myself up to pursue the next thing.” He’s already starting to do that.

When writing the book, I am sure you had to cut out a lot. What didn’t make it in the book?

The one thing that I don’t wish was in the book, but would have been interesting, was a little bit more on the link between love and passion—so, a romantic passion and activity passion—and how much overlap there is between love and passion, and how the pitfalls of both are the same. This notion of trying to find the perfect love or find the perfect passion, and then this notion of once you have it, if you’re not viewing it as an ongoing practice, both of those things also come up quite a bit in the research on successful relationships.

Now that you’ve got me going, something that’s in the book but you could write a whole book about is the overlap between addiction and passion. Again, so much of that is, I think, societally constructed. Take an Olympic swimmer. They spend eight hours a day staring at a line in the pool. Imagine if Olympic swimming wasn’t a sport. That would be such disordered behavior. But because we give medals to people, it’s celebrated.

Researchers are a really interesting species, because one would think that they are actively pursuing their passion through academia. Do you have any advice for researchers that are pursuing their passion in academia?

Try to come back to the work itself, come back to the core values, and realize when your passion is becoming more outcome focused. Try to nip that in the bud. Because if you’re chasing the next thing—whether it’s tenure, more publications, or more prestige in your field—and that’s the motivating force, not the work itself, all the research shows that leads to bad outcomes.