The following is reprinted from THE PASSION PARADOX: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. Copyright © 2019 Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Lots of people equate a passionate pursuit, going “all in,” with working all the time. But this isn’t a recipe for sustainable success. It’s a recipe for burnout.
As we detailed in our last book, Peak Performance, if you want to make lasting progress, you’ve got to rest. Working hard toward something, or what we call productive stress, doesn’t yield growth. Growth only occurs when stress is followed by rest. Or, as the most popular phrase from our last book says, “stress + rest = growth.”
It’s well established that intrinsic motivation promotes long-term performance and protects against burnout. As we wrote earlier, whether it’s on the playing field or in the workplace, the more your drive comes from within and the more you perceive your work as an end in and of itself—that is, you enjoy what you’re doing, not just the external rewards and recognition your work brings—the better off you’ll be. But that doesn’t mean intrinsic motivation makes you bulletproof. Even if you love your work—or perhaps because you love your work—if you push too hard without appropriate rest and recovery, you’re bound to stagnate.
One of our favorite parts about both of our respective coaching practices is that we get to work with intrinsically motivated and intensely driven people. We rarely, if ever, have to push them forward. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is holding them back. Without us putting on the brakes, the athletes, executives, and entrepreneurs we coach would work themselves into the ground—and not in spite of their intrinsic motivation, but because of it. If you are into what you’re doing and you’re dying to get better, the natural inclination is to keep pushing. Unfortunately, even if that pushing is born of all the right internal reasons, eventually the mind and body get tired. And when the mind and body get tired, it’s easy to slip into apathy and, even worse, depression. The worst part of all is that this often happens subtly, without you even realizing it.
And this is to say nothing of the massive importance of sleep. If you really love your work and want to do a good job at it, the last thing you should do is sacrifice sleep. In the early 2000s, then groundbreaking research out of Harvard University found that it is during sleep that you retain, consolidate, store, and connect information. In other words, your mind doesn’t grow and make leaps when you are at work, but rather when you are at rest.
Even so, it can be excruciatingly hard to step away from your work, especially if you love it. Ernest Hemingway said that as difficult as writing could be, it was “the wait until the next day,” when he forced himself to rest, that was his greatest challenge. In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “For me, not working is the real work.”
Inherent in King’s quote is a pearl of wisdom. If you consider not working a part of the work, you’re more likely to not work. This sentiment is common among the world’s best—and most lasting—musicians, athletes, artists, intellectuals, executives, and entrepreneurs. They all tend to consider rest an essential part of their jobs. They think about rest not as something passive (i.e., nothing is happening, you’re wasting time) but rather as something active (i.e., your brain—or, if you’re an athlete, your body—is growing and getting better), and thus they’re far more liable to respect it. Seen in this light, rest isn’t separate from the work—rest is an integral part of the work. Going all in on something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rest. If anything, exerting passionate effort is all the more reason to rest. Remember that stress + rest = growth. And be sure to build in regular periods of rest and recovery to whatever you do.
In addition to the risk of completely neglecting other important parts of your life (and having regrets later) and burning out, there are also risks inherent to having your identity tied up in a single activity—mainly, what happens when doing that activity is no longer an option? It’s not surprising that athletes and super-driven professionals often struggle with depression and other mental health issues when they are forced to retire. It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out. But even so, we don’t think that balance—which essentially asks you to never go all in on anything—is the right solution. 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. Put differently, self-awareness is about creating the time and space to know yourself, constantly checking in with yourself (since your “self” changes over time), and then living your life accordingly.
Someone with keen self-awareness is able to separate the acute euphoria of being fully immersed in a pursuit from the long-term consequences of doing so. It’s the Olympian who chooses to retire in time to start and raise a family; the artist who realizes that setting aside some time for life outside the studio gives rise to great works inside the studio; or the lawyer who sets a hard rule of not missing family dinners or her children’s sporting events. This type of self-awareness doesn’t come easily. Paradoxically, as you’re about to learn in the next chapter, one of the best ways to accomplish it is to mentally step outside your “self.” Psychologists call this self-distancing, and examples (that you’ll soon learn about) include pretending you’re giving advice to a friend, journaling in the third person (and then examining the emotions that arise when you read what you wrote), meditating and reflecting on your own mortality.
Practicing self-awareness allows you to more honestly evaluate and reevaluate the trade-offs inherent to living an unbalanced, passionate life. It ensures that you are taking the time to rest and recover so that you don’t burn out, and it also ensures that you are making conscious decisions about how you spend your time and energy, and thus decreases the chances that you’ll have regrets about what you did—and didn’t—do. It helps you realize when your identity may be getting too interwoven with a specific activity, and that in some instances—writing a book, the first few months with a newborn baby, or trying to make an Olympic team, for example—your lack of balance may be excessive, but it can be OK because it’s time-bound. For some people, when you zoom in on any given day, week, month, or maybe even year, they don’t appear at all balanced. But when you zoom out and look across the totality of their lives, they are actually quite balanced and whole. This is the kind of balance to strive for.
Shalane Flanagan is a thirty-seven-year-old marathon runner who recently became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in forty years. Flanagan is deeply passionate about running. When she is in peak training, she regularly logs over 120 miles of running per week. She acknowledges and understands that there’s simply no way she can be balanced, nor does she want to be. “I like to go all in on one extreme for a period of time and then shift to another extreme,” she recently told Brad during an interview for Outside magazine. “For me, this means going all in on running, and then taking a vacation where I go all in on things like family and other pursuits. It’s too hard—physically and mentally—to try to do everything at once.”
Flanagan also realizes that her career as a professional runner is time-bound. There will come a moment when she’ll want to, or her body will force her to, point her passion in other directions. Even in the midst of her intense running schedule, she hasn’t completely neglected her other interests, like cooking and writing (she recently combined those interests and coauthored a cookbook, Run Fast. Eat Slow, with Elyse Kopecky).
Flanagan is also a staple in the running community, so perhaps formal mentoring or even coaching will be in her future. “I want to explore my limits in running, to see what I’m fully capable of—and I think I still have a few special performances in me,” she says. “But when the time comes to move on, I’ll move on.” It will be a tough decision for Flanagan to make, but she’s aware of it and knows that eventually, she’ll have to make it. That doesn’t mean the transition will be easy for Flanagan, but it will be less likely to completely throw her off.
People like Shalane Flanagan have the self-awareness to understand the power of going all in on something, but also when to pivot to something else. Studies show that those who possess strong internal self-awareness make better decisions, have better personal relationships, are more creative, and have more fulfilling careers. Other research demonstrates that internal self-awareness is associated with improved mental health and general well-being.
When you put all this together, an interesting idea starts to emerge. Maybe the good life is not about trying to achieve some sort of illusory balance. Instead, maybe it’s about pursuing your passions fully and harmoniously, but with enough self-awareness to regularly evaluate what you’re not pursuing as a result—and make changes if necessary. When it comes to living with passion, it’s not about balance. It’s about marrying strong harmonious passion, the best kind of passion, with an equally strong self-awareness, a topic we’ll turn to next. Doing so trumps balance any day.