The Passion Paradox

Keeping Your Balance While Pursuing Your Dreams

Following your passion and leading a balanced life are antithetical pursuits, according to these authors.

The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. 2019. Rodale Books, New York. 192 pages.

Follow your passion.” It’s a familiar refrain. But how do we find our passion in the first place? And what do we do with it when we find it? Using examples of athletes and CEOs as well as data-driven research, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness set out to explore the roots of passion and examine some pitfalls to avoid.

The idea of being truly moved and passionate about what we do is not new. “Whatever you do, do with all your might” is credited to first-century Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero and before that to ancient Israel’s king Solomon. These famous thinkers from long ago knew the value of pursuing interests in life with deep fervor.

The Passion Paradox reads as both an exploration and a manual on the subject. Stulberg and Magness investigate the origins of passion—etymologically, psychologically and biologically. They offer instruction on how to find a passion (hint: be curious) and how to thoughtfully develop that passion over time without letting it control or consume us. They detail what happens when passion does get out of control, and the destructive behavior it leads to. They search for the cause and lay out a path to help readers recognize warning signs and faulty motivations. After examining those pitfalls, they discuss why “harmonious passion”—the kind that comes from the enjoyment of doing the activity, not from the external validation that may come from it—is the best kind, being linked with happiness, health and overall life satisfaction.

When you sit down to write, you should sit down to write, not to sell books. When you show up to work, you should show up to make a meaningful contribution, not to get promoted or earn bonuses.”

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, The Passion Paradox

The Illusion of Balance”

If “follow your passion” is a familiar cliché, the authors note that the idea of achieving balance in life is no less so. But controversially, they argue that being passionate and being balanced are antithetical: if we truly have a passion and live out that passion, then our life will be inherently unbalanced.

This is the book’s most striking idea. We want to have it all. We want to hold on to our clichés—to follow our passion and to live a balanced life. The authors say, Stop fooling yourself.

In many respects they’re right. If we vigorously follow a passion, life may well get out of balance. But are the two really antithetical? Are the authors right when they say that “living with passion is, by definition, living without balance” and that “passion and balance are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile”?

Consider the authors’ definition of balance. The opposite of passion is not balance; it is dispassion—being emotionless, unexcitable, detached or disinterested. Stulberg and Magness contend that “balance implies equilibrium” and then set up a straw-man argument that it means not only devoting time to but excelling at every aspect of our life simultaneously. Few proponents of living a balanced life would make that case. A balanced life requires prioritizing and making time for those activities and relationships that can get overlooked if we’re not careful. For some people, those vital aspects of life may take up so much of the day that little else is left, but for many of us, there’s still enough time to devote to a passion such as a career goal, a sport, a hobby, or learning a new language or a musical instrument.

To be clear, the authors don’t advocate following a passion while neglecting family, yet they hold up as examples three people who have done just that: Warren Buffet, Alexander Hamilton and Mohandas Gandhi. They point out that each of these individuals lived passionate lives devoted to meaningful causes, and that this led to them having middling to poor relationships with those closest to them.

In the words of New Yorker writer James Surowiecki, ‘Buffet was born to be great at investing. He had to work really hard to be good at living.’”

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, The Passion Paradox

These are certainly admirable figures, and Stulberg and Magness don’t seek to glorify them for their failed relationships. Still, they seem to justify the weaknesses by asking, “Have you ever met an interesting person—let alone a deeply passionate one—who is balanced?”

Toward Greater Clarity

As the authors develop that thought, they do get to the heart of the matter: “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.”

They then provide some helpful advice on how to examine what is worth pursuing, labeling it an aspect of self-awareness. Being self-aware requires stepping outside ourselves in order to see ourselves objectively, difficult though that might be. It forces us to analyze our passion and choose whether and how to pursue it. This requires deliberate thought, action and planning. What passions are worth pursuing? Is this what my life should truly be centered on? Answering these questions will necessarily take us outside our normal self-centered thought process.

An overarching principle comes to mind here: count the cost. If I pursue this passion, what will I be forced to give up? What would it cost to devote myself fully to this particular pursuit? Thinking through the competing priorities of life isn’t easy. The authors note that clarity comes from seeing a bigger picture and taking a broader perspective on life: to meditate, to place ourselves in nature, and to find awe in art and kindness.

They draw one last tool into focus: thinking about death. Cicero and King Solomon’s advice could make a good blurb for the rear jacket of The Passion Paradox. What’s interesting, though, in light of the book’s final self-examination tool, is the context in which Solomon’s counsel was given. “Whatever you do, do with all your might” is only the first half of the thought. The quote is from the book of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” Stulberg and Magness ask us to meditate on our mortality as a tool for setting and achieving our goals. Solomon advised us to do the same: Life is short, so give it everything you’ve got.

Thinking about the short-term nature of our existence sharpens our focus on what’s most important to us. What passions are worth pursuing? Have we counted the cost? Where should we best put our focus in life?

Finding balance does not require equal time spent among endless priorities but an acute attention to what should matter most. We should pursue our interests and activities with passion—with zeal, enthusiasm and spirit—but not to the neglect of something else that’s ultimately more important. With that caveat firmly in mind, The Passion Paradox provides a good road map for thinking about how to find and follow our passions.