The Passion Paradox by Brad Stulberg Book Summary

The Passion Paradox by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness is a powerful guide about seeking and embracing passion and learning how to avoid burnout while discovering the benefits of an unbalanced life. The book outlines the core principles of mastery and gives you the blueprint for going all-in and achieving ultimate success with what you’re passionate about.

Here’s what you’ll learn about in this The Passion Paradox book summary:

  • Where passion comes from.
  • How to find + cultivate passion.
  • Whether you should quit your day-job and embrace your passion, or take it bit-by-bit instead.
  • And much, much more…

Tweetable Summary

Passion is a gift and a curse. By learning how to prevent the pitfalls of passion and harnessing your drive in a productive direction, you can go all-in with your own passion.

The Passion Paradox Book Cover




“The line between what we consider a destructive addiction and a productive passion is a fine one, if such a line exists at all.”

The word passion is derived from the Latin word passio which means “suffering.” In The Passion Paradox, Stulberg and Magness challenge the notion that passion has to go hand in hand with suffering.

In the first chapter of the book, the authors teach us that passion is fueled by a neurochemical in the brain called dopamine.

It’s important to note that we do not produce dopamine to make us feel good when we achieve our goals… Rather, the dopamine is produced while we work towards achieving our goals.

Dopamine makes us crave the chase toward the goal—not the achievement of the goal itself. In other words: It isn’t about the finish line, it’s about the race.

The more you work on a goal, the more dopamine is released, which motivates you to keep going—to keep working, to keep making progress. But this also results in a resistance to dopamine over time.

Passion and contentment cannot coexist. The more you work on your “passion” the more you become hooked on the feeling of pushing.

“The feeling of struggle or ”trauma” can be channeled into productive passion(s).”

Passionate pursuits can often become a psychological refuge, providing you with a hiding place, a distraction from life issues, pain, or trauma. This relentless pursuit can be productive but it can simultaneously be destructive—especially if you neglect your health, relationships and other vital life components.

The same intrinsic biology and psychology that give rise to passion are also connected to addiction. Therefore, it’s crucial that you actively find ways of channeling these drivers into positive pursuits.

“Individuals we praise for passion—who go on to experience huge successes—are often those who have found a way to turn what could be seen as biological and psychological weaknesses into strengths.”

Actionable insight(s):

The bottom line: passion and suffering are connected; however, they do not have to coexist if you consciously pursue your “passion” with a healthy and positive mindset. Pay attention to your emotional, mental and physical health, while nurturing your relationships and other aspects of your life that bring about joy and fulfillment.

While passion and suffering don’t have to coexist, it’s important to remember that “we’re not wired to simply be content. We’re wired to keep pushing.”


“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.”

Love and passion are inextricably linked. Since the beginning of documented history, humans have tried to comprehend the ever-consuming feeling we call love. Scientists, poets, artists and philosophers have all attempted to interpret what love means, coming up with answers that span from the metaphysical, to the spiritual, to the biochemical to the downright inexplicable.

Furthermore, the notion of singular love is conditioned into many of our minds through society and media. For instance, the belief that there is one “soul mate” out there for each of us only came into existence at the beginning of the twentieth century—which wasn’t that long ago.

Ancient Greeks believed that love was a process of cultivation rather than an immediate, intense spark of unrelenting attraction. Finding your passion can be approached in a similar way…

Many people believe that once they find “the one”—a partner that feels like the perfect fit, someone who ignites a sense of romantic passion within them and makes them feel all the fuzzies—that they will instantly fall in love with that person. Social scientists refer to this mindset as “the destiny belief of love.”

With this “destiny” mindset, you relentlessly search for your “one true love”—the perfect soul mate, the person you’re destined to be with. But this mindset is flawed in the sense that the second you experience some kind of conflict with that person, you instantly think that he/she can’t possibly be your perfect match… This is how a lot of folks tend to approach their career choices.

The way many people in our society perceive romantic relationships is similar to how people pursue their professional passions.

When we’re looking for passion at work, much like with love, we search for the perfect fit. There’s this misguided belief that the initial magic—the sensation we feel when starting a new hobby, job or project—should clearly indicate that we have found our one true passion. And if we don’t experience those positive emotions immediately then we should abandon ship and keep looking for the perfect passion. This mindset is referred to as the “fit mindset” of passion.

This “fit mindset” of passion isn’t a very helpful way of thinking when it comes to passion. Here’s why: because people who adopt this mindset often focus on their initial feelings instead of focusing on their potential for growth. Often, people with a fit mindset of passion give up when failure strikes or when the passion they were pursuing doesn’t immediately produce feelings of instant gratification.

In the book, the authors give the example of director James Cameron (the guy behind films like, Titanic and Avatar). In an interview for Men’s Journal about Titanic, Cameron said that he actually did not set out to create one of the most successful movies of all time. He wanted to make Titanic so that he could dive the wreck. His primary interest was to dive the Titanic shipwreck and he thought, what better way than to make a movie? Cameron told Men’s Journal that the film was a side effect of a “personal quest.”

Actionable insight(s):

The moral of the story is this: instead of focusing solely on the initial feeling of excitement and magic, choose “interesting” over ”perfection.” Cultivating and exploring your interests is better than trying to find something that instantly feels perfect.


“The great benefit of being able to convincingly rationalize one’s work as a manifestation of the true self is that it gives the individual direction and purpose. Work then provides answers to an individual’s fundamental questions: ”Who am I? and “What should I do with my life?”

In the early 1970’s, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan established a theory called self-determination theory that challenged how the scientific community perceived motivation. They discovered that—contrary to popular belief—a person’s motivation to pursue a goal or passion is not largely dependent on money, fame or notoriety…

In fact, it’s quite the opposite, motivation derives from satisfying three basic needs: competency, autonomy and relatedness.

  1. COMPETENCY is about knowing you have control over the outcome of an action. If you put in the work, you should experience some level of progress.
  2. AUTONOMY, also known as authenticity, is about connecting what you do to your authentic self. Your work should fall-in line with your core beliefs and values. Research from the University of Washington has revealed that autonomy is essential for lasting happiness and passion.
  3. RELATEDNESS is about feeling connected to others and/or feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. As humans, we are social animals. Connectivity and cooperation has facilitated the growth and development of the human species throughout history. Relatedness does not mean that working in groups should be the main focus; you can meet this need by knowing that your work is making an impact in the lives of others. Bottom line: you are more likely to stick with something that makes you feel like you are part of something greater.

Actionable insight(s):

Throw yourself into activities that fulfill these three basic needs. Participate in activities that bring about a feeling of aliveness and self actualization. Delve into your passion and pursue it if it meets the aforementioned basic needs of competency, autonomy, and relatedness.

Now, as fun as it sounds to wholeheartedly dive into your passion, the authors advise us that it may not be in your best interest to jump into the pool without dipping your toe in first. In the next Big Idea, we’ll talk about how the best way to fully develop passion is by taking the gradual route.


“Once you have begun to cultivate an emerging passion, it’s only a matter of time before you’re liable to ask yourself some simple yet significant questions: How can I spend more of my time and energy pursuing this new passion? How can I make it a bigger part of my life?”

When cultivating a new passion, you will eventually begin to question how you can make it a bigger part of your life. The authors reference the book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by the artist and writer Elle Luna.

In the book, Luna talks about fully immersing yourself in your chosen passion. She challenges the notion that we should take the safe path and instead encourages us to push through and pursue passion with reckless abandon. Luna’s path encourages delving deeply into your passion, which might mean you need to quit your job and go all-in if you want to achieve your goal and live your dream…

But Stulberg and Magness believe that the best way to follow a passion is to do it bit-by-bit. In their book, they cite an investigation called “Should I Quit My Day Job? A Hybrid Path to Entrepreneurship,” which was published by the Academy of Management Journal:

”For the study, a pair of University of Wisconsin researchers set out to answer what, in the age of start-ups, has become a common question: If you want to do something entrepreneurial—in essence, attempting to monetize a passion—are you better off keeping or quitting your day job? After interviewing thousands of entrepreneurs, they found that those who kept their day job while pursuing a personal venture on the side—or what the researchers called “hybrid entrepreneurship”—were 33 percent less likely to fail than those who quit their jobs altogether. As the Harvard Business Review put it, “Going all-in on your start-up might not be the best idea.”

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.”

Actionable insight(s):

The Passion Paradox teaches you that going all-in might make you vulnerable, especially if you dive in too soon. Therefore, instead of delving too deep too soon, choose to develop your passion gradually. In other words, keep your day job while you gradually work to build-up your passion. Doing this allows you to think with a sense of calm and clarity that you wouldn’t have had if you just quit your job (severing your primary source of income) and found yourself scrambling to make ends meet with an emerging passion.

Go slow, develop a side hustle, and keep your full-time job (boring as it may be) until you believe you’re at the point at which your passion is big enough to sustain you.

“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.”


“At a certain point, you’ll reach a position to decide whether it’s time to go all-in on your passion, to make some big changes so you can devote more of your life to it. This requires making a leap of faith.”

There is an ancient Buddhist saying that faith is the confidence born out of realizing the fruits of practice. Therefore, by all means go all-in… However, keep in mind that going all-in should only begin once you’ve mindfully and consciously worked on your passion.

The type of “faith” the authors write about in The Passion Paradox is not a gut feeling or a premonition, it is the kind of faith that is based on evidence — evidence that you have cultivated your passion piece by piece, bit by bit.

Here’s a quick checklist you can utilize to help you decide if it’s the right time for you to go all-in with faith. Check YES (Y) or NO (N) after reading each of the following statements:

  1. _Y / _N: I’ve done the work that is necessary to put myself in a position to make progress.
  2. _Y / _N: I’ve tested my current skills several times and I know they are sufficient to stay afloat (financially, physically, emotionally) when I dive in.
  3. _Y / _N: I’ve reflected on the sacrifices I’ll need to make in order further pursue my passion and I’m OK making them.
  4. _Y / _N: I have a plan and a support system including mentors, family and friends. I am willing to be flexible with my plan.
  5. _Y / _N: I might feel nervous, but the thought of going all-in on my passion does not make me anxious. It makes me excited.
  6. _Y / _N: I want to do this and I am committed to the process.

So… How’d you do?

If you answered YES to more than four of the statements above and feel totally confident to move forward and delve deep into your passion, then this is the right time.

However, if you are still unsure about most of the questions on the list, that is fine too. Continue to pursue your passion bit by bit and keep revisiting the checklist to determine if you’re prepared or not.

Actionable insight(s):

Ask yourself the crucial questions from the checklist and delve in if you feel confident enough. Or, take a step back and continue to work on your passion slowly if you are still unsure.

When you do decide to go all-in, do so with real faith, and remember—faith is not just a gut feeling. It is knowing that you have worked on your passion for long enough and the time is right.

If you are still uncertain, stick to something safe on one hand while taking risks on the other. For example, keep your day job while working on your passion in your spare time.


“Obsessive passion is when someone becomes more passionate about the rewards an activity might bring than about doing the activity itself.”

In this Big Idea, Stulberg and Magness highlight the dangers of obsessive passion. They illustrate this by using successful founders as examples.

One of the examples they highlight is Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of the now defamed Enron. He once said, “I value passion probably more than any other attribute.” Skilling’s relentless passion to keep growing Enron’s financial performance gave rise to the most dramatic corporate fraud case and bankruptcy in history.

They also talk about Elizabeth Holmes and her much talked about Biotech company, Theranos. Holmes also obsessively pursued her passion of starting and growing an innovative biotech company. But her startup collapsed with the world watching when the federal government charged her with massively defrauding consumers and investors regarding the efficacy of her product.

Stulberg and Magness do not dismiss the importance of passion by any means, but what they do object to is obsessive passion. The type of passion that focuses on external rewards, achievement and results more so than internal satisfaction.

Actionable insight(s):

Beware of your obsessive passion, which can occur when you become less passionate about doing an activity than you are about achieving external results. Therefore, instead of focusing on external gratification, embrace the process and work on your passion with mindful enthusiasm.


“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.”

Musical harmonies take place when a combination of tones are played at the same time and in perfect accord. All the notes work together to form perfect harmony——everything clicks.

When your relationship with your passion is just right, you should feel at peace with it, in total harmony with it.

This feeling is called harmonious passion (also known as flow), a feeling that surfaces when you are wrapped up in something solely for the joy of the activity, it is not really a means to an end but rather an end in itself. Harmonious passion is connected to health, happiness, performance and overall satisfaction.

Actionable insight(s):

Harmonious passion does not happen overnight, it must be cultivated with deliberate intention. Think about your passion like it is a flower, a budding seed. It needs to be watered and cared for to grow and flourish harmoniously. Care for your passion and work on it with a zen-like calm.


“The mastery mindset involves shifting your focus from achieving any one goal itself, to executing on the process that gives you the best chance of more general improvement over time.”

The mastery mindset is about focusing on the process… In concrete terms, this means breaking down goals into small parts rather than focusing on one huge target, and paying close attention to the daily processes and tasks that will keep you motivated to continue steadily working in a calm—yet focused—way.

Focusing on the process creates daily opportunities for little victories. These small victories act as mini milestones on the path of mastery, helping to keep you motivated throughout the long process.

“Process spurs progress, and progress, on a deep neurochemical level, primes us to persist.”

Actionable insight(s):

Pay particular attention to the process. The day to day steps that you need to take in order to fulfill an objective or pursue a passion. Set a goal, break it up into smaller, manageable pieces, forget about the end goal and work on the day to day steps. Remember, process spurs progress.


Key Takeaway

“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..”

The underlying premise of The Passion Paradox is that passion is not necessarily a negative thing. However, choosing to be mindful of the way you pursue your passion is key. Understand that passion is not a fly by night thing, it takes conscious, mindful effort.

To cultivate passion is to do so harmoniously with a zen-like calm and faith that all will be well regardless of the outcome.

When people become overly obsessed with the outcome of an activity—rather than the activity itself—they lose passion for whatever activity they’re engaged in. Why? Because they’ve shifted from focusing on what they’re doing (harmonious passion) to focusing on what they’ll get out of what they’re doing (obsessive passion). The pull of the outcome, reward or result should never outweigh the pull of the joy that comes from the work.

The key to a life well-lived is mindfully pursuing a passion that you have cultivated and nurtured over time.

Actionable insights:

  • Avoid burnout by mindfully and consciously working on your passion at a steady pace.
  • You can still take the safe route and work on your passion daily until you feel confident enough to make your passion your day to day work.
  • Focus on the process
  • Obsessive pursuit of passion is dangerous. Work on your passion bit by bit.
  • Go all-in with faith, cultivating your passion over time will allow you to go all-in with the faith that you have done enough mindful work on your passion to take it to the next level.
  • Harmonious passion is the best kind of passion. When you feel at peace with the path you have chosen, you exude a zen-like calm.
  • Remember to satisfy your basic needs: Competence, autonomy and relatedness.


Brad Stulberg

Brad Stulberg is a peak performance coach and he writes about health and the science of human performance. He is the co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. He is a New York Magazine and Outside Magazine columnist. He currently lives in Oakland, California.

Steve Magness

Steve Magness studies, writes, speaks and coaches on health and human performance. He is the co-author of the best selling book Peak Performance and the author of The Science of Running. His writing is featured in Sports Illustrated, Wired, Outside, NY Magazine and Forbes.

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