Full Podcast Transcription - Episode 4
THE XTERRA PODCAST
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Episode #4: A User’s Guide to Going ‘All In’—Passion, Success, and the Benefits of Living an Unbalanced Life with Guest Brad Stulberg
Lesley Paterson: On this month's podcast, we are going to talk about passion.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Oh, oh, no husband likes to hear that.
Lesley Paterson: Hey,that's not what you were saying last night. Anyway, no, it's not marriage counseling, we're actually going to take a deep delve into passion, you know, what it's made up of, how we find it, obsessive passion… That's not me at all.
Dr. Simon Marshall: And does passion go awry.
Lesley Paterson: Yes, never, with me…
Dr. Simon Marshall: You're an interesting case, because your drive doesn't seem to be a gas pedal. It seems to be a switch, you’re full on or full off, on most things that you do.
Lesley Paterson: I know, it both gets me into trouble and it gives me a lot of success, right. But that's why we're having a passion expert this month.
Dr. Simon Marshall: It is, this month we have one of the leading experts on passion, particularly as it relates to our own health and wellness. The expert this month is, Brad Stulberg.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Welcome to the XTERRA Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Simon Marshall, a performance psychologist, I'm here with my co-host and pint sized wife Lesley Paterson, a Professional Triathlete with five world titles to her name.
Lesley Paterson: Wait a minute, how come you get to do the intro?
Dr. Simon Marshall: Well, it's just that you're kind of hard to understand sometimes.
Lesley Paterson: What, because I'm Scottish?
Dr. Simon Marshall: Well, yes sort of.
Lesley Paterson: That is so typical of the bloody English, whatever man. So wherever you're from, if you're a fan of outdoor endurance adventure sports, you've come to the right place. We talk everything from training your body and mind for outdoor shenanigans, to gear, expeditions, travel and culture.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Let's get started. Brad is an author, coach and speaker on health well being, mastery, performance and actually many, many topics. And so whether you're trying to qualify for the Olympics or launch a business or what have you, the practices that underlie sustainable success in health are not only very similar, but are backed by scientific evidence. Brad, I was introduced to Brad from a couple of his books early on, and then Lesley got hooked on his writing as well. And he writes about a whole bunch of topics in his regular column and Outside Magazine, as well as for the New York Times, Wired, NPR and so on. And after completing a stint in the White House with the National Economic Forum, he's now with his co-author Steve Magness, the run coach, the author of two bestselling books, one, which is really timely, ‘The Passion Paradox’; discovering the benefits of an unbalanced life and ‘Peak Performance’; How to elevate your game, avoid burnout and thrive with a new science of success. We're really interested and excited to have Brad on the podcast. And so welcome Brad all the way from Oakland, California.
Brad Stulberg: Hey, thanks so much for having me on the show. It's great to be here.
Lesley Paterson: Yeah, Brad, we are super stocked and listen, I've actually just been checking out a book by Brian Grazer, the film producer. I'm not sure if you've heard of him, but Simon and I are kind of getting in the film world here. So, we're up in Los Angeles at the moment. Anyway, he's written this really cool book called The Curious Mind and I am kind of intrigued as to what drives your curiosity for all these topics that you've gotten into over these last five to ten years, you know, because one thing that Simon and I really noticed is the sort of diversity of topics that you get into, and how deep you dig in all of these philosophical and psychological issues. So, what made you curious about all of these things?
Brad Stulberg: It's a tough one, I wish I could pinpoint where it came from, because at times, I would then be able to turn it off and just be relaxed a little bit. I think I'm just wired that way. I try to live with my eyes open and my ears open. And I also read a ton of books and I always kind of want to try to get to the root of things and figure things out or at least get deeper on them, so perhaps where other people would come across something and it would just be an interesting concept or that would be enough, whether I like it or not, my brain tends to want to pry for more for a greater level of understanding. I just feel so fortunate that I've somehow figured out a way to be able to make a living doing that prying and sharing it with my readers.
Lesley Paterson: I mean, have you have always been like that as a wee boy? Do you remember, did your parents…
Brad Stulberg: I think I was always pretty curious. It's funny that you asked that, because my parents always tell me this story, that when I was maybe two and a half or three, my neighbor's dog passed away. And I was very close to my neighbor's dog and I was quite sad and they asked the pediatrician what to do and the doctor said, “Just tell him that the dog went ‘bye, bye’ or the dog went away.” And my parents said that I would not accept that as an answer and I said “So where did it go and why isn't it coming back?” And then when they said “the dog died,” the pediatrician said by then I should forget about it. And then I said, “well, what does it mean to die and am I going to die and are you going to die and what happens when we die?” So, perhaps that's a glimpse of just my desire to keep questioning, but again, sometimes it's a gift and it allows me to do great works, but other times, I certainly wish I could just turn it off here and there.
Dr. Simon Marshall: I think we both feel like that, actually Lesley about her training in sport and me. I'm probably most similar to you, in the fact that I find that reading and writing really is primarily to help me understand things. And then I suppose a natural consequence of that, is that it becomes, well maybe I should share this with other people, but it's really about my own curiosity.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, for sure. And I think that, again, it's this blessing and a curse of being a creative, and in my case, being a writer is that everything is kind of my job and I love it, but then it's very hard to just check out. I was just talking with a close friend this morning, that even if I pick up a novel, without fail, there's going to be something in that book that triggers my brain to say, “Hmm, I could explore that or I could write about that.” So, it's a good thing and a bad thing.
Lesley Paterson: It's funny because I think I possess kind of both of those skills in a way. I mean, I grew up as an athlete, obviously, but from a very young age that was the fight in the belly, and I don't even know where it came from. From the age of four, literally, I was all about running around with bare feet. God, I'm showing my age here because it was in the 80s. But that was just kind of innate and I think because having a drive like that, from such a young age, funneled me into something very specific very, very early on. And, so I guess that kind of leads me to passion, and sort of, well we're not wired for contentment, but to keep pushing. I just want to talk into some of that a little bit, because it's pretty evident that I have all of those attributes.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Well, you know,maybe you can't turn it off. That might be one of the principles, if we're not wired for contentment, then maybe that's a false goal to try and reach.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, I'm glad, we're getting right to the heart of it. You guys are pulling no punches. That is the topic of my second book, which is called The Passion Paradox. And very much to what Simon was just saying, the genesis of that book was I had finished my first book and there was very little contentment or feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment. I think I was pleased for about a half a day and then immediately the question became, “well, what's next?” I realized that, just being aware of that, that it's not really normal. “What's next,” I would tell my wife, I would tell friends, they say ‘what's next’ is like, you take a vacation, you celebrate, you check out for a little bit, but I didn't really want to do those things. And when I do those things, it kind of feels unnatural. So, I started to think about with my co-author, Steve who is wired very similarly. “Where does this drive come from?” And we've always been told that our drive and our passion was such a good thing. But is it a good thing? And might it be better if we could feel some contentment? So, much like you said, Simon, we started exploring this topic for our own sake. And then what we found was fascinating and we kind of had our cake and ate it too and we turned it into a book, so I think that the short answer is a little bit of both. This is going back to your question; “should we just realize that we can't be content and say, screw it, or should we try to be content?” And I think that, there are two ends of this metaphorical barbell and on one side it is drive, pushing, creating, growth, doing and on the other side is being, fulfillment, contentment. And I think that if you are wired toward either side of that barbell, it does not make sense to fight against your wiring. So if you're one of these people that has to ‘push, push, push and grow, grow, grow,’ so long as you're directing that energy towards productive things you should not try to change that. That's how you're wired, there's nothing wrong with that ,those are the kind of people and the creatives, that make the world turn, they create great things, they win medals, they inspire. I think that there's a little bit of risk to just saying “I'm going to be 100% there always.” I don't think you can neglect the other side of the barbell. Doesn't mean it's ever going to be the majority or the dominant force. But I think it's worth trying to cultivate some contentment, some relaxation, some self compassion, just the ability to really experience joy and to be where you are without the need to keep pushing. Again, this isn't to say that you should sign up for a month long meditation retreat after retreat, if what you want to do is try to win a XTERRA medal, go win the XTERRA medal, but just know that, A - that's how I'm wired so I'm going to point it in productive directions, and B - I can never completely neglect that other side and I should still try to cultivate some of the ability to be content. Because eventually what happens is if all you do is push, push, push, you burn out, you become disenfranchised at the end of your life, you look back and you say, wow, I did all this pushing, but I was never really present to enjoy it.
Lesley Paterson: I mean, it's definitely cyclical and that’s something. And this will lead us to another question about self reflection and self awareness. But I've noticed that sort of cyclical quality to it, where you find that drive from something, you reach a certain amount of success, it becomes obsessive because of the external validation and we speak about that too. You get off the train tracks and things fall apart and there's this weird kind of enlightenment phase and you get back to finding your reason for doing it or your drive again and it takes you to a sort of slightly different step on the ladder.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, I so, I think that part of that cycle is that, I don't think you ever necessarily outgrow it. I just think you become more aware of the natural ebbs and flows. So maybe the first time that you're off the tracks, you enter like, a true burnout or like, depression. And then the next time that happens, you still feel really low, but you're like, “Huh, like, I've been here before, so I'm just going to let things unfold on their own.” And then, five years, 10 years, a decade later, you just kind of realized that those ebbs and flows are natural. And I think so much of what happens to people, myself included during those low points, is when we freak out that we're feeling that way or we judge ourselves for feeling that way, that makes it so much worse, versus just realizing, accepting, like, “Hey, this is how I'm wired and like I'm going to have highs, I'm going to have lows.” And when I'm in the low, I don't need to rush it, there's nothing wrong with me, it doesn't mean that I'm a bad person or that I'm a failure, or that I'm never going to feel good again, it just means that this is a natural low. I think that those lows, they are tricky to navigate because sometimes when you're in one of those lows, what you need to do is respect it and listen to it and just chill out and be with it and not do much. Other times when you're in one of those lows, you actually kind of need to gently nudge yourself to start acting in ways that are aligned with your values and work your way out of it. I think that's a really important skill for pushers and high performers, is learning how to pay close attention to their mind body systems. And again, figuring out when they should respect the low and that low is their mind body telling them that they need rest and they need to decompress, versus when they get stuck in a rut and that I'm a huge believer that the only way out of a rut is to gently but forcefully just start doing things.
Lesley Paterson: I think that's one of the hardest things, certainly as a performer myself, you have this image, people see you in a certain way. And so, you might be in one of those lows and you have to self reflection and you're able to understand it. And you know, you're going to ride this wave, but you have to project something completely opposite of that to your audience, whether it's to your sponsors or, other people that are supporting you. To be honest, it's pretty hard, you know, I find it really, really tough, certainly, when I'm going through a lot, might be, “gosh, I never want to do this sport again.”
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. And that's hard to tell your sponsors.
Lesley Paterson: You've got this push and pull all the time. And I experienced it when I'm around everyday people, that incessant drive that I have for pretty much everything that I do. As you see I think that's in my wiring, but am around other people that maybe don't have that. And so, whether they're envious of it or not envious of it, there's this big judgment call on it. So, you're constantly having to justify this drive that you have, because you're seen as somewhat of an outcast.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Well, the thing that fascinates me on this discussion is, I suppose less about managing the cyclical ups and downs of someone who's very driven, you know, that fire in the belly. But the folks who don't have that, so the number of discussions we have, when we see family and on holiday times and they look at Lesley with just sort of a bemusement, they can't fathom, how you could do the things and the times that you do and stick with them. So, when we talk about wiring, is it just who I am and how I'm built? What is it that's actually built that way?
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, let's dive into the science a bit for sure. So, there's a neural chemical in the brain called dopamine. And dopamine is implicated in all sorts of behaviors, but a primary mechanism that Dopamine plays, it's the neurochemical that fuels the chase of something. So, if you can imagine our species way back when an evolution on the African savanna let's say, after you had a big hunt and made a kill, if you became content and too content, that was a competitive disadvantage, because if there was a famine, you wouldn't be getting more food, you would just be sitting there, you stuffing your face content, kind of on vacation and then if there's a famine, you would die and get selected out. So all humans are wired to crave the chase, that's why a lot of people struggle to feel fulfilled and content, because it's been a competitive advantage to want to keep on going. Now, millennia ago, that drive was really important, because that's how we made sure that there was always enough food. In today's world, where food is plenty, we have to figure out ways to point that drive in other directions. So, for some people, it is promotions in the corporate world, for other people, it is followers on Twitter, for other people, it is pushing themselves athletically like you do. Now, well, all humans are wired to pursue the chase, some of us have what's called an intolerance to dopamine, which means we need more of it to feel good. So, how do you get more dopamine? Dopamine is released during the chase, you chase more things. Now it's fascinating and I came across this in researching The Passion Paradox, I wanted to have a whole chapter on it, it's only about a half a chapter. Is that the profile of someone that is super driven and passionate is very, very similar to the profile of someone that's suffering from addiction. They are almost two sides of the same coin, the only difference is, in the passionate driven person, they are pointing that drive towards things that society says is really good and in the addict, they're pointing that drive towards things that society says is not good. So, interviewing people that suffer from substance use disorders, the high isn't so much the hit, the high is the chase, and then they get the hit and then they feel good for a little a while and then they have to get start chasing their next hit. Which is actually pretty similar to a high performer that chases a race or chases some goal, they get the goal, they feel good for a little while and then for me, it's a book project - got to start the next one. So, it's the same exact cycle, again the difference is, that the person that society calls driven or passionate, they're pointing that drive at something productive, whereas the other is pointing at something destructive, which is why it is so important to be aware that if you're wired that way, channel that wiring in good directions. Again, not surprising that anecdotally in the endurance sports community, so many long distance endurance athletes are individuals that have either suffered from substance use disorder are currently in recovery, or have close family members that are.
Dr. Simon Marshall: I imagine the more that you expose yourself to the cycle of chase, reward, chase, reware that probably reinforces the cycle of dopamine right? So, imagine in many cases…
Brad Stulberg: Totally, and you develop a resistance to it and then you need more. So at first it is, because again, I'm wired this way and it's something I have to be very mindful of and work with. At first it is getting a blog post published, then is getting a post publish for a magazine like Outside, then it's publishing a book, then it's writing for The New York Times, then it's publishing a bestseller. And like, it's never enough and I've had to learn that I'm never going to feel like I arrived so I should stop chasing any of those things and just focus more and more about, like, the process and the journey, because that's where the joy is. But if I tell myself that eventually I'm going to do something and be content, I'm selling myself a lie.
Lesley Paterson: I think what's interesting is that a lot of the athletes that we coach, they deal with this issue, but with all of the new advances in technology, monitoring assessment, so much of how they see their world and what they're doing is external and not internal. It's just so difficult to express the importance of process versus outcome and they see that as almost silly.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah. So I have two, like, really practical things that I write about in the book, and that I use with my own clients and that I use with myself. So, the first is what I call the 48 hour rule. And the number is arbitrary, but the concept I think, is really important and hat is 48 hours after a big win or a big loss, you give yourself that much time to grieve the defeat or celebrate the victory. Some people they actually have to force themselves to feel good for 48 hours after they accomplished something great. But then after 48 hours, you get back to doing the work itself, because to Simon's point, you're kind of short circuiting your brain's ability to glow in the wind or feel really bad about a defeat and you're very viscerally reminding yourself that “hey, what I actually like, is the process of training, of writing, of working, the community that I do it in.” So, you really get back to doing the thing that nourishes you, and spending less time in the results world. Now the other tool that I really like, it's a metaphor and I like to think of all of the checking that we do, so for an athlete, this would be looking at your results and posting on Strava, looking at social media and seeing who's going to be in other races and trying to strategize what races you should do, and looking at what different sponsors are saying, all that checking. So, In the business world that is being obsessed with dashboards, or your linkedin followers, or what have you. To me, that's like peanut M&M’s, whereas doing the actual work is like brown rice and if you have brown rice next to peanut M&M’s, you're always going to choose the peanut M&M’s because they taste better. But if you spend the whole day, or a whole week, or whole month or God forbid, all whole year just eating peanut M&M, you are going to start to feel like shit and the only way that you can know that is by paying really close attention. So, when I have a client that tells me that they're kind of in a rut, and they've been spending a lot of time looking at metrics, I tell them to really feel that deeply. What is it like to spend an entire day just obsessing over metrics, and at the end of the day, you tend to feel pretty empty. So, I try to use that emotion as like a mindfulness bell to be like, “whoa, I'm spending a lot of time just browsing or obsessed in results world.” Even if I don't want to, I know that eating the brown rice is what's going to make me feel good, I need to go back to eating the brown rice, which is actually doing the work. And over time, what happens is people start to prefer the brown rice to the peanut M&M’s, because they know that peanut M&M’s are going to make them feel like crap.
Lesley Paterson: You know, I sort of feel that people are so impatient now and they need to get that validation externally all the time. They're not willing to put the time into the process, you know, they've lost sight of maybe the passion or the drive behind why they initially got into it and they're so obsessed with the outcome.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Yeah,but it’s also making the problem worse because, as you start to pursue the metaphorical M&M’s, you crave the constant external feedback from a gadget or from social media, you're really nurturing more dopamine dependence, so you're almost trapping yourself into a deeper and deeper hole.
Brad Stulberg: Oh, it's a vicious cycle, 100%, and then the only way out of it, is to break the addiction, literally to kind of unplug from all that. And when people do that, they have a really tough couple of weeks before they're out on the other side, because it's like a legit chemical thing, that's happening in your body, where you can start to feel empty or hollow or worthless. And the thing that a lot of people do in those situations is they normally would pull up social media or whatever and check it, to kind of get a little hit of dopamine and feel better. And when you take that away, people kind of have to confront the emptiness or whatever that underlying emotion is and learn to be okay with that.
Dr. Simon Marshall: What do you think it is in our culture right now that we need so much external validation?
Brad Stulberg: You guys are asking great questions so, thank you. I think it's just the lack of ‘in real life community and belonging and love. Like whether you're an athlete or a business person or an artist. People that feel really rooted in their communities and in their relationships and vulnerable and share love and not just like intimate physical love, but emotional love, so not just sex, but like good friendships and real belonging. Those people don't need to go get that external validation because they are love, they feel love and they're giving love. I think what happens is, we get so busy and we get so hooked on productivity and winning the next medal and getting the next promotion, that we crowd out that time, for community and belonging and then we seek love in all the wrong places, which is external validation, I feel really strongly about that.
Lesley Paterson: Which is so interesting, I mean, obviously, we're both British, I'm from Scotland, Si’s from England and growing up in a culture that was a bit more oriented around family and community. I lived in a small town it was all about helping out your neighbor, truly those values that what you seek out, it definitely changed when we moved to California. They're both a wonderful and excitement in the possibilities and it's sort of like ‘me-driven’ culture over here, but it does kind of feel almost dirty.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, that's real. So my wife and I we are moving from California next year. I'm not saying that you can't make it work in California. There's a lot that I love about it here. But we're moving to a small mountain town in North Carolina and a large part of that is just wanting to feel more in a small-town community.
Lesley Paterson: Simon and I get it. We go back and see our family, we travel a lot and interestingly, we spend quite a lot of time in Mexico and in Mexico City where it's all about family and friends. We always come away from those experiences, feeling just totally overwhelmed with joy and it's such a different way.
Brad Stulberg: Andreal quick why I say that. I mean, we're moving for a host of other reasons too. Like saying that you need to move, like that’s a bullshit cop-out excuse, you can't just blame California, like, you can knock on your neighbor's door anywhere and you can develop that kind of community and belonging anywhere. In some places, it might be a little bit easier. But I think that anyone can build community, whether you are beautiful and on top of your game, or whether you're someone that's suffering from mental illness, there are support groups, there are recovery groups. So I think that it's less about the inability to build community and more about the story that a lot of people tell themselves, which is, “oh, well, building community that's not helping my personal brand, or that's not helping my productivity” so they look at it as kind of like this thing that's a cost, when in fact, very few people, if anyone I've ever met has ever regretted joining an intimate community.
Dr. Simon Marshall: I think one of the key issues for me is this notion of relatedness - is about authenticity. Many people I think have been misled that electronic communities, social media or the like are kind of form of connection. And it is in some form, but it does lack the authenticity for lots of reasons and obviously in person communities are probably stronger and more beneficial to your mental health, well for the most part. But many people are not able to separate those two things. And if there's one thing, a common thread in some of the athletes that we've coached, particularly when it comes to their relationships with others and doesn't just apply to sport, it's about becoming overly obsessed with what other people are doing. Well, as you know, when you get a piece of information about yourself, you first want to know, “what does this mean? And then you want to know “is that any good?” So we're constantly trying to figure out where we sit in some sort of social hierarchy. But when it's manufactured, or curated, or polished as it is on social media, you get a really distorted sense of what that means. So, when some of the psychological research and I love to see that you mentioned this in your book Brad, about what we call ‘Self Determination Theory,’ about these three innate psychological needs that we are all born with, the need for autonomy to be our own boss, to self agency, to have competence to feel as though we're successful. And then there's relatedness, which is about giving love and acceptance and encouragement, not just receiving it. And so the authentic component to that often misses the giving part and it's just that we're so obsessed with the receiving it. ‘I'm trying to get more attention, more likes.’ I think a lot of that is subconscious, I don't think necessarily, people thinking themselves as narcissistic.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, I know, people don't set out to do it. Yeah, I think it's very subconscious and I completely agree with the distorted reality. No one goes on Twitter, at least, no one that I have met and posts, “really struggling to get out of bed today, feeling completely apathetic - even starting the load of laundry feels like a huge to do.” Hashtag, like that's me. That's not the tweet that's going to get a gazillion retweets and every single person that's having a human experience has days like that.
Lesley Paterson: You know, the funny thing is I'd say that my biggest social media post in terms of likes and shares are actually ones where I show weakness. Because it's almost like if you are someone that has reached some kind of stature, then you show weakness, there's a relatedness that people really enjoy.
Brad Stulberg: I do think that, yeah for sure, there's a lot of good research that shows that vulnerability builds trust and relatedness, that's definitely a thing. And, again, most people don't go to social media when they're feeling like crap to share that they're feeling like crap. And I'm not sure if it's the best place to go, I think that's the importance of in person community, when you can have physical touch, when someone can put their arm on your shoulder and there's just a different level of trust that happens when you share in a physical way.
Lesley Paterson: So,I think one of the best things about sport for me, from a very young age is that when you're competing and you're feeling pain, you become vulnerable. And when you are out with training partners and they see that vulnerability, you create this amazing bond with that other person and that group. I really encourage it, certainly with my athletes, or my friends to find people to do things with. It doesn't matter if they're at different level, but to create that social aspects around sport, instead of getting lost in what absolutely has to be done.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Yes, sowhy is it that you hate training with me then?
Brad Stulberg: Because you are slow.
Dr. Simon Marshall: That’s right. Because I have a fat ass.
Brad Stulberg: You bring her Strava numbers down. No, I'm kidding. Lesley, you make a great point. I am 100% on the same page as you, I think that one of the most tactical things that endurance athletes can do is find a group to train with. And regardless of what level you're at, you can always tell yourself a story, that, well am I going to train with the group because they're too fast or they're too slow. If Shalane Flanagan can do the vast majority of her workouts with a group then you can too, you know, don't need to be so freaking precise on every single split. And you can always warm up and cool down with others, but just doing more things that celebrate the humanity of the sport and the connection with other people, again, you’ll be less likely to seek that in places where it's not authentic.
Lesley Paterson: I think it's well though, that leads me to myself, that balance between good and bad passion. And the way that tips over on to the other side, because for me training with other people sometimes, I'm just so bloody obsessive, compulsive about what I need to get done. I mean it both won me a bunch of world titles, but it's also created a vast darkness.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Which makes you not very fun to train with.
Lesley Paterson: Yes, pretty much…
Brad Stulberg: So,that's another big theme in the book, is this difference between what psychologists call Harmonious Passion and Obsessive Passion. Harmonious passion is when you are passionate about an activity because you love doing it and obsessive passion is when you become passionate about an activity because you love the external validation that it brings you. Now, no one is completely harmonious or obsessive. I've never met anyone that just does something for external validation and doesn't at least enjoy it a little bit and I've never met someone that could totally care less about what others think. The key is that you want the majority of your passion to be of the harmonious variety. Why is that? There's all kinds of research that shows that people that are majority harmonious passion, have greater life satisfaction, greater overall well being and also longer term sustained performance. Whereas individuals who score very high on obsessive passion, that tends to be associated with depression, anxiety, burnout and cheating. The kind of poster child cases or poster man, woman cases of obsessive passion would be someone like a Lance Armstrong, or an Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos. So, people who definitely love what they do, but they actually become a lot more obsessed with the validation and winning and being the top rated athlete or the top rated executive, that then, when their performance isn't great, they do anything to close the gap, even if that requires cheating, or that you become depressed and anxious.
Lesley Paterson: And so,how do you go about knowing when you're going down the wrong path. What kind of skills do you need to help with that?
Brad Stulberg: I think this is a big area where mood follows action. You can't think your way into being Harmoniously Passionate; you have to act your way into it. Again, that 48 hour rule really comes into play here, is when you catch yourself spending a lot of time thinking about what others are going to think of you or scheming to win, or checking or obsessing about metrics. Those are really good mindfulness bells to just force yourself to stop and actually go do the activity itself. And in the case of training, if you've already trained and you can't train anymore, because then you'll over trained like maybe you set up a system where every time you find yourself on Strava, you start reading a novel instead, or you pick up the phone and call a friend and talk about something unrelated to the sport, or you watch a documentary, you name it. But the irony of that is like checking the Strava and doing all those things, it's kind of obsessing about external results. None of that actually makes you a better athlete, so it's not like you're getting any value out of it. It's just locking you in that cycle that we talked about, where you just want more of that to feel good and to feel whole. But it's tricky, you really have to learn how to feel human emotions that we tend to want to numb ourselves to, so a lot of people that I talked to, the number one time they're pulling up Strava, or Twitter or Facebook, or even just if they're an executive looking at their dashboard, it's when they're bored and lonely and feeling kind of empty and we go to that, to fill it instead of sitting with that feeling and realizing that's a normal human feeling. And that's actually feeling that can connect us to other people and connect this to ourselves. But society doesn't say like “go feel that feeling,” what society tells you is “if you feel that way, you're broken and here's a bunch of things to fix it so why don't you check how many retweets you get.”
Dr. Simon Marshall: Right, so that craving of how I'm doing.
Lesley Paterson: I think, as well that you talk a lot about self awareness and that's what you need in order to understand where you are in that spectrum. It seems to me that building a community of people around you where you can talk about it…
Brad Stulberg: Totally to help you see where you can’t and to call you out. Listeners, I want to be really clear, no one should judge themselves if they're predominantly obsessive. When I first started reading this book, I was very much on the obsessive side of things. I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that's just how the culture conditions us to be. So, I think what I try to offer in the book is A - just a concept and some awareness that these polarities exist and then B - some tools to gradually work yourself more towards a harmonious relationship with what it is that you do. And just the ability as you said, Lesley to have the self awareness to realize when like, you're going kind of full-tilt obsessive, so that you can pull back.
Dr. Simon Marshall: The difficulty is that if you're a recreational athlete and you're training 25 or 35 hours, you're basically doing the training of a professional. People get worried about you, they frown upon it or they might make some comments. But if you're a professional and you do an equal amount of training, even the obsessiveness or the passion is identical. You don't get called out on it, I think you can, almost hide behind the mask of, “well, I'm doing it for my job.” And in my experience, not just with Lesley's complicated relationship with sport, I mean, many of the professional athletes are making a living out of sport, many of them have all the hallmarks of obsessive passion, but they never get called out or criticized or encouraged to reflect on it or even be self aware of it, because it's their job and that's what they do.
Brad Stulberg: I'm with you and it's not just athletes, because my coaching practice is predominantly with executives, entrepreneurs and physicians. And those professionals experience it very much the same and again, it's not that you're broken or that you're wrong or that you need years of therapy, although I've come through my work to start thinking that everyone could benefit from years of therapy. But just the ability to be aware of it and to name it and to talk about it with other people, gets you 75% of the way there. So, now when I'm feeling myself kind of getting in a rut, where I'm really caring about external motivation, or I'm finding more time checking than actually doing, I just pick up the phone and call one of, six really close friends and I say, “Hey, here's what I'm doing, I just want to name it, can we talk about it?” And then after that phone call, I feel 30% better and I often leave those phone calls with a couple things that I can do and I break myself out of the rut. But until we can call a thing what it is, not be scared to name it and then actually name it, we're just going to get trapped in that vicious cycle and the more time that you spend trapped in that cycle the harder it is to realize that you're in it and to break.
Dr. Simon Marshall: What about people who don't have that network or close friends? I know the studies, particularly among the millennials, is something like a third or fifth or so report having zero friends, that connected on social media, so I think that, this is the tendency then when you're feeling down or low is that you start grazing and stalking on social media. So, you're not really interacting, but you're just looking to see what other people are doing. Maybe you're fishing for something to feel good about, but most people, at least a research suggests are likely to end up feeling worse, so what about if you don't have friends, is it journaling, is it writing things that you're grateful for, have you got any strategies to help people who don't have the connections?
Brad Stulberg: You are getting to the nuances of social media which is great. I do think social media can help here, if you feel like you don't have friends, go on social media, but don't just graze, like, put your skin in the game, go find an author. It can be me, it certainly doesn't have to be, but I always respond to people that tweet at me, about being in rough patches. And those often turn into email exchanges, so don't just graze but go reach out to people and get real with them and see what you get in return. And then, in terms of other things, journaling can help I think that I'm a big fan of the meditation practice, there's all kinds of good resources out there to help people develop that. And then I think if it feels like you're really in a rut like that, you know, look for a local support group, there are more of these cropping up for people experiencing burnout. There are all kinds of - what's clinical anxiety - what's not, I'll tell you what, if you're feeling anxious enough about this to consider joining a support group, then join a support group, they often tend to be free. They're put on by psychologists in the community and I think just about anyone can benefit from that, if for no other reason then it's a really vulnerable space.
Dr. Simon Marshall: And I think we've probably been sold a little bit of a turd in the psychological self-help world, because we're encouraged increasingly to be positive and to get rid of negativity. Whether it's, the cliché of looking yourself in the mirror and telling yourself over and over again that, “you're strong and you're beautiful, you can do it.”
Brad Stulberg: I hate that.
Dr. Simon Marshall: And what I find most interesting, particularly if you follow some of the research in psychotherapy and clinical psychology, is that these new models of helping people struggle with these issues do the exact opposite. They don't all focus on positivity, they say, listen, as you're saying here, Brad, is to learn to sit with some of these feelings a little bit more and then maybe go on and do the things that you love anyway, so you're not expecting to do things free of that.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah,I think what you're pointing toward, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, maybe like Steven Hayes’ work and then self compassion, which is very different than positive thinking. Here's the difference right, positive self help ‘bro. science world’ would say that “you're feeling like crap, so look yourself in the mirror, repeat a mantra and go seize the fucking day regardless of how you feel, fuck, fuck, fuck 13 times in the title of the book.” Very different from the therapies that have stronger evidence bases, which actually say, “You're feeling like crap, that's okay it's really hard to be a human, don't judge yourself for feeling like crap. What are your core values, even if it feels like you're forcing yourself to do it and you're faking your way through it. Just start acting in alignment with your core values and be very kind to yourself along the way.” And that is a muscle that takes people a lot of time to build up in America because that is not how, at least my generation, was raised.
Lesley Paterson: And that's got to have helped you on your journey. Because reading about your background, of course, you've dealt with some mental health issues yourself, right?
Brad Stulberg: Yes, I still experience, but it's funny I get scared to put it in past tense, although I guess that shows you I'm close to it. But, I've had some really bad episodes of obsessive compulsive disorder. And it's helpful to name it that, because it definitely changes the therapeutic approach. But these are syndromes I think, so with OCD comes depression and anxiety, and they just kind of become an interlocking web of being stuck. Cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance - commitment therapy were a huge part of my recovery and I struggle to say that I'm thankful for those things, because I think I'd rather never have suffered like that, for a pretty long period of time in a pretty intense way, and those are skills that now I use in daily life.
Lesley Paterson: I think a lot more people are dealing with these issues, I mean, I, myself have gone through a super, super similar experience to you. I don't think quite as intense but panic attacks, overwhelming feelings of dread, just totally bizarre. In fact, I find it really difficult to talk about, I was watching your, I think it was a ritual podcasts and I had to fast forward that whole section where you talk deeply about it, because I feel that I am still too close to even…
Brad Stulberg: Too close to home. Yeah, I'm sorry. That's tough.
Lesley Paterson: Yeah, it is you know, but I think I have kind of put my behaviors and drive behind, figuring out the ‘why’ behind it. Because I truly believe that there are physical reasons for it as well as genetic or social reasons. You know, my point being that I've tried to dig to get to the bottom of it because it's such a horrible state to be in. Have you dug in any of the physical aspects that might be creating this chemical difference in your brain wiring or anything like that?
Brad Stulberg: I have and I think that where I come out on this, and I'm not a scientist so this is just my understanding as someone that researches these topics as a writer, is it is very hard to separate the mind and the body. Like the brain is the body so when you mentioned physical, it's kind of like everything is biochemical, because that's how emotions are made and everything is psychological, because that's how we feel. Now getting away from the kind of esoteric talk, some of these feelings can be related to just being in a kind of fight or flight arousal mode for a long period of time without a chance to decompress. And the body's alarm systems, kind of, goes haywire and start sending out false signals because it's just overworked. That's not to say that everyone that experiences something like that has been super stressed out physically or not. That is just to say that, and I know there are a lot of athletes listening to this show, that burnout, athletic burnout and overtraining can often lead to depress and anxiety, obsessive compulsive like symptoms. I think that there's some relationship there, I think from a psychological side of things, certainly looking back in my case, I think there's two ways to look at it and they seem totally at odds with each other but I don't think it matters. I spent a lot of time with my own therapist talking through this. I think one way to look at it is that you're a super driven pusher, you push really, really fast, you're achieving things, you're achieving things and then suddenly, you realize that regardless of how fast you run and how much you push, eventually you're going to die and everyone that you love is going to die and that is terrifying and that can throw you for a world. And It's coming to confront that and get comfortable with that and share that with others and realize, that insecurity is actually what binds us, and it's never going to go away, that dread that can come with that. The second way to look at it is, these are just intrusive thoughts and your genetic wiring as such, that for whatever reason at this context, at this point of your life, the alarm system is messed up, and it doesn't really matter why it's messed up. It's messed up and it's the same treatment that fixes the mess, so digging for the ‘why’ behind it can kind of fuel its own anxiety cycle, versus just totally forgetting about it. When I first really started to have bad intrusive thoughts, I was trying to figure out what they meant and where they came from and why. And something that I worked on was just not even asking those questions because they're unanswerable, and just being okay with having shitty thoughts and feelings, because that's what's happening. I do still think that the meta thing is kind of reconciling with death, that a lot of people just for whatever reason never feel viscerally. But when you do feel that viscerally it can be really jolting. But then for me, the day to day, kind of, pragmatic approach has been less on the intellectual digging and more on just the skills and practices that rewire your brain.
Dr. Simon Marshall: So, are you advocating for more contemplation of your own mortality Brad?
Brad Stulberg: Again. Yes and no, it depends. I do think that it's a good thing not to resist. I think that if you start contemplating those things, and it's leading to feelings of despair, that's a really wonderful, if that's the right word to use, trigger to seek help from a therapist, or at the very least start talking about it with close friends. I think that's another problem, we could go on and on and I know that we're supposed to stay focused on sport, but athletes are humans. I think that like, a big problem because this kind of conversation and realization has been so kind of pushed under the rug or stigmatized, that I find myself saying, like, “find a therapist.” But, this is a normal part of life and ideally, it would be like talk about it with a friend and obviously, if you're having thoughts of harming yourself then yes, definitely find a therapist. But if you're just super sad that you're going to die and you start dreading that, I wonder if, I would have been introduced to that thought earlier in my life and it would have been normalized as an okay thought and feeling of dread to have. I wonder if it would have turned into this, like very pathological cycle for me or not and I can never know.
Dr. Simon Marshall: That's a really interesting perspective. I know Lesley and I really disagree on...
Lesley Paterson: I don’t think we disagree, I struggle to talk about death and to discuss it and watch things about it.
Dr. Simon Marshall: You know, I'm picking out the lining of my coffin, but you struggle with it and I think one of the things exercise does for you.
Lesley Paterson: Yeah, it numbs.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Yeah. It is and I think it's a bit of a dark dirty secret.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, perhaps it numbs it. And again, Lesley, we can talk offline if it’s helpful. We can just build this part of the conversation out a little bit right now. But my experience has been, the science jargon for it is exposure and response prevention therapy, which basically means that you expose yourself over and over again to the thing that brings on the feelings of dread and despair and depression. And then you prevent the usual response. So if in your case, the usual response is exercise or like reading a spiritual book that tells you that everything will be okay when you die, like, nope. Just read stories, read memoirs of people that are dying, expose yourself to the fact that you're going to die, and then learn to sit with that dread. That is something where if it brings on massive feelings of dread, don't do that alone, that's something where I would say, do that in working with a professional.
Lesley Paterson: Interestingly, Simon and I have started writing screenplays together and I am very much in the creative world, have been all my life. One of the acting things I used to have to do was, create a scenario where you're given a piece of terrible news and you have to be honest with it, what comes out, comes out and my scenario was the death of a family member, or something like that, I don’t remember. It was actually quite therapeutic to fully get into it and to imagine that happening.
Brad Stulberg: This is hard stuff, it’s easy to say, like intellectually in a conversation move close to the things that scare you. It's hard to do that, but I think that another kind of paradox, if that's the right word, is that it seems like, with these kinds of issues, there's, two conventional ways of thinking and one is pick yourself up by the bootstraps, do it yourself, change your brain and get better. And the other is, we're just going to love the crap out of you, and you have no personal responsibility to change or to get better and this is just the way that you are. And I think that real recovery happens when you merge those two things, so when you acknowledge that, yes it's going to take individual work, yes, there is autonomy and personal choice, regardless of how you got here, this is where you are, and we're going to love the shit out of you along the way. I think, that's how you move closer to the things that scare you and we're talking about fear of death or illness. But this is also for an elite athlete that's approaching retirement and I think that it's marrying those two things together that ultimately lead to the best outcomes.
Lesley Paterson: Again, that comes back to having people in your life, that you can give unconditional love and support to and you get that from as well, so you can really lean in and face your fears, right?
Brad Stulberg: Yes. And if you feel like you don't have those people right now, that doesn't mean that they're not out there.
Dr. Simon Marshall: This might be a nice segue to talk about the ability to get some perspective or to find something that's bigger than you. And this might be about some of those exercises, you know, about contemplating death. Can you talk a little bit about what you call, self distancing, or the ability to be able to stand back from your own internal experience as a pathway towards happiness and a bit more wellness.
Brad Stulberg: For the driven person,certainly for the driven athlete, but really for anyone. It's really easy to get so wrapped up in what you're doing that you lose the ability to see outside of it, so you literally lose perspective. There's some research that I cover in the book that shows that individuals that are very driven, I think this research was with athletes and entrepreneurs, they tend to have very similar behaviors and then when you do a brain scan, very similar brain activity to people suffering from anorexia. The linkage there is when someone is suffering from anorexia, they look in the mirror and they see someone that is fat, they don't see someone that is gaunt, they're literally delusional. And In order to be an entrepreneur and a lead athlete you also have to be delusional, because 99% of companies fail and 99% of athletes don't turn pro or don't win or don't make the Olympic team, whatever it is. Again, it's kind of this viewing passion as the light side of another wise, perhaps darker path. But that's all preface to say that, so when you're really warped up in that world, the inertia of what you're doing can be all consuming and it gets really hard to see beyond it. This idea of self distancing is practicing ways to remind yourself that “hey, like, this isn't the whole universe,” you can step outside of your situation and gain some perspective. Some ways to do this, one way is to, put yourself in the way of beauty and experience “Ah,” I think that for some people, this might mean going to a museum and spending a day without distractions, looking at art. For others, it might be listening to really profound music without distraction. And for other people, myself included it often means just spending a day unplugged in nature. There's nothing like spending a day in nature for me, that helps me realize like what's really important and what really matters and what I want to spend my time doing. Another self distancing technique that I use all the time with clients is, to take whatever situation you're in, pretend that a good friend, is in it and then give advice to that friend. This is the athlete that is limping out the door on their pulled hamstring to go train, because they don't want to take the fourth day off, because they're scared that they're going to lose fitness. And if that athlete were to say, “Oh, my training partner just pulled their hamstring, and they can hardly walk down the stairs, but they're going to the gym to do their recovery run because they're scared that they're going to lose fitness. ” What would you tell your friend, and without fail you tell your friend, “don't work out, you're going to be fine, better to take a day off now than to exacerbate this injury.” Then you take the advice that you give your friend, we're talking about emotional turbulence, if you're feeling really down and like you can't get out of bed or you're just having a rough day. You might tell yourself, “You suck, you're going to feel like this forever.” Well, if a friend came to you, you'd probably say, “Oh, sounds like you're having a really hard day, just give it some time it'll probably change.” Or maybe you'd say,” sounds like you need to like get out of the house, just force yourself to go to a coffee shop and bring a book.” So, you give that friend much better advice than you give yourself. I think that's another really good way to self distance.
Dr. Simon Marshall: That's a really fantastic example. I guess the other corollary to this is that we're often great in other people's crises, right, but terrible in our own. And if you're in a profession like yours and mine to a certain extent in psychology, then there's almost a guilt about whether I should have my own shit together, if I'm supposed to get paid to help others. You have to reconcile those things, because I think the answer for me is that, no, not necessarily for all those reasons that you've said. And some of the work, the chimp paradox, we try to use some of those analogies in ours, about when you have chimp brain, your limbic system, the emotional reacting paranoid part of you that sends you astray. But the moment you try and help someone else, or you're asked to imagine what advice you would give to yourself, somehow that part of you tends to quiet down a bit so you can use more rational, logical thinking. It's a much different proposition. Well, that's the way I've justified anyway for being a mess inside.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, I think that I agree with everything you said. And I think I've just kind of come to learn that, like we're all messes together. And at some points in time, certain people are less a mess than others, but they'll just be a mess later on down the road. I think that it's sharing that vulnerability, and realizing that, if you can integrate what you're experiencing into your work that makes you better at your job. Again, in my experience, being able to share what I've experienced with coaching clients, certainly helps me and even more so in my writing to connect with readers. And like, in my own experience, pretty quickly into my therapeutic relationship with my therapist, I learned that she has suffered from terrible depression in her life. And rather than that, made me not trust her, it actually made me trust her more, so I think that there's total integration of those things.
Lesley Paterson: You havecovered so many different, amazing topics and obviously you've written a bunch too. But, do you find that there are still these big myths in your field that you have to spend so much of your time debunking?
Brad Stulberg: I do. I think the biggest myth is still the myth of the quick fix - supplements, specialty, special fitness tracker device, special mattress, although I just got a new mattress, I sleep a lot better, so maybe there's something to this special mattress. But no, I think the myth of the quote-unquote hack or quick fix is still pretty predominant out there. And I've yet to find one that works and the other thing is just those two opposing camps of, you get better through being a victim and realizing that there is all kinds of structural reasons that you're in the place that you are and it's not your fault and love, love, love. Versus, pick yourself up by the bootstraps, you can do it. And I think that it's got to be a marriage of those two things and people like to put themselves in one or the other camp.
Lesley Paterson: Basically, there's a ton of shades of grey is that what you're telling us?
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, a lot of it depends, you all probably know this from your writing and your work, but “it depends” doesn't sell as well as “here's the answer.” It's super interesting, I've written two books and I think that The Passion Paradox is a much better book than Peak Performance. But Peak Performance has sold a lot better and I think that is largely because like, everyone wants to be a peak performer. But reading about a paradox, it depends, why would I want to do that, tell me how I can be better. I think that there's a commercial resistance to the really important gray areas.
Dr. Simon Marshall: To change slightly here. Is there anything that you're working on at the moment that you're really excited about, have you got another book planned or where is your curiosity and your intellectual inquisitiveness sending you now?
Brad Stulberg: Yeah, I'm hoping to work on another book that is very much related to some of the things that we've talked about in this conversation. The integration of mental health with performance, with community, with swimming upstream, in the very commercial culture, and really just what does it mean to thrive as a person, an athlete or performer in this day and age and how can we incorporate suffering as a part of thriving.
Dr. Simon Marshall: We need to have you back on, because I love discussions about the meaning of suffering.
Lesley Paterson: Yeah, everyday of living with him.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Hey. 17 years of marriage.
Brad Stulberg: Yeah.
Dr. Simon Marshall: Brad, I can't thank you enough for joining us, how do people find out more about you?
Brad Stulberg: You can just throw my name in Google and my website should come up and then I'm only on one social media platform for many reasons that we've discussed, one is plenty for me. I am on Twitter, @BStulberg and I tend to be quite responsive there.
Lesley Paterson: You’re not kidding.
Dr. Simon Marshall: I messaged you once, I don’t know if you remember this because I was so impressed by the share volume of tweets and I thought you must have some sort of AI bot generating these, and that I couldn't believe that you could do it, and they're all legitimate and authentic. Anyway, thanks again, Brad and we look forward to speaking to you again sometime.
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Dr. Simon Marshall: If you want to learn more, head over to Xterraplanet.com, there you can register for your next off-road race, learn more about this podcast and find some amazing gear. If you have questions or comments, you can email us at podcast [at] xterraplanet.com.
Lesley Paterson: And if you're interested in learning more about how to master your brain for endurance sports, we've written a book.
Dr. Simon Marshall: It's called The Brave Athlete and its available everywhere they sell books.
Lesley Paterson: And we even have an audio book, in fact, we narrate it.
Dr.Simon Marshall:Yes, that's not exactly a great selling point.
ABOUT THE GUEST
Brad Stulberg explores the principles of health, wellbeing, and mastery that transcend capabilities and domains. Whether you’re trying to qualify for the Olympics, break ground in mathematical theory, launch a business, craft an artistic masterpiece, or raise a family, many of the practices underlying sustainable success and wellbeing are the same and supported by scientific evidence. Brad writes about these topics in his regular column in Outside Magazine, as well as for the New York Times, Wired, New York Magazine, NPR, Forbes, and Sports Illustrated. After completing a stint in the White House with the National Economic Forum, he’s now the author of two best-selling books, with co-author Steve Magness, The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life, and Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, And Thrive with the New Science of Success. Brad coaches executives, entrepreneurs, and athletes to develop and harness productive passion using evidence-based principles of mastery and success. You can keep up with Brad here (www.bradstulberg.com) or on twitter @BStulberg.
ABOUT THE PODCAST
Hosted by five-time off-road triathlon world champion Lesley Paterson and her husband Dr. Simon Marshall, the new XTERRA Podcast explores the stories and science behind the quest to Live More. The XTERRA Podcast will feature guests who live, work, and play off the beaten path, share first-person accounts of epic outdoor adventures, and provide valuable tips from industry leaders in the physical and mental health industries.
Find The XTERRA Podcast on major platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, and iHeartRadio. You can always look here as well to use our embedded player to listen to every episode.
Learn more about the podcast here: xterraplanet.com/podcast
Lesley Paterson & Simon Marshall
Lesley Paterson is a five-time world champion triathlete, professional mountain biker, coach, motivational speaker, reluctant fitness model, and foul-mouthed Scotts lassie. Growing up in Scotland, Lesley was the only girl who played rugby on an all-boys team. When boobs appeared she was banned from playing with the boys so she started competing in running and triathlon. Lesley went on to become a national champion in cross country and an international triathlete.
Dr. Simon Marshall grew up in Africa and the UK. He spent his childhood playing rugby, soccer and tennis before finding competitive cycling. He started training and racing at age 12 and hasn't stopped. Simon has a bachelor’s degree in Sports Science, a master’s degree in Kinesiology, and a PhD in Sport and Exercise psychology. He is a former Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at San Diego State University and Professor of Behavioral Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
Simon and Lesley own Braveheart Coaching – a San Diego based company that trains endurance athletes to be faster and happier. Together they wrote the best-selling book, The Brave Athlete - Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion (VeloPress, 2017).