When Obsession is Good for You
Last spring, I gave my undergraduate students an unusual assignment. Their project for the semester: stop worrying about what you are supposed to do, and do something you want to do. My students—bright, motivated, talented people—were mystified. They are used to worrying a great deal about the many things they are supposed to be doing. This is, in fact, the primary job of a college student, next to scouting for used textbooks. But there was a caveat: instead of writing papers or memorizing data, each student was to choose an activity they genuinely wanted to spend time doing, and pursue it wholeheartedly for the entire term. Their job was to pick a pursuit—no matter how impractical, unattainable, trivial, or even silly— and become creatively, productively, and passionately obsessed.
This idea didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve had my own experiences with obsession, most recently a few years earlier when designing and marketing a clothing line. As usual when I’m in a phase of concentrated production, ideas turn into brainstorms and brainstorms become all-consuming obsessions. Colors and designs were all I could think about. I’d fall asleep exhausted after a 16-hour day of drafting, then bolt awake at 3 a.m. with a new idea. I’d slip out of bed quietly, and, with the euphoric sense that I was somehow stealing time, that I was actually creating time that normally didn’t exist in the world—because smart, sensible, normal people were sleeping—flee to my downtown studio and get to work. I worked until I barely had the energy to drag myself home, and after a few restless hours of sleep, I would start again.
Forgetting to eat, unable to sleep, isolated in a workroom, losing all sense of time: on paper, this sounds like madness. It opposes every word of sensible advice from your doctor, your therapist, your mom—to eat well, exercise every day, get eight hours of sleep, not take your work home with you. And they’re correct: it’s entirely unsustainable, physically and mentally. It quite likely is a form of madness.
It’s also quite likely a good thing. I’m not alone here: lately, there’s been a resurgence of new research pointing toward the positive role of obsession in the quality of one’s experience of life and work. Athletes talk about ‘the zone’; psychologists refer to ‘flow state’; Liz Gilbert even helpfully looked up the early etymology of the word ‘genius’ (once thought to be actual genies temporarily inhabiting the minds of artists) for us in a recent TED Talk. And of course, the familiar archetypes of the eccentric painter and mad inventor exist for a reason. What the research is finding is what we probably already know: that some degree of genuine obsession with our work correlates directly with our joy in that work, and even with our ability to create at all.
A clarification: I don’t mean obsession in the harmful sense; those compulsive fixations on people, objects or ideas that we have learned, rightly, to steer clear of. Obsessive disorders are devastating. But they are also not what I am describing here. I’m lucky to have a few people in my life who were apparently born with the rare gift of being both productively obsessed and consistent about it, living their life’s work wholeheartedly. These visionary people seem profoundly in touch with their deepest creativity, harnessing the motivation to achieve self-imposed, often formidable goals and managing to balance their enormous output with rest periods.
They are highly productive, startlingly creative, and often brilliant. Many are artists, composers, and performers, but others are entrepreneurs, gardeners, carpenters. What is clear is that the ability to harness genuine obsession with our pursuits is indeed a kind of creative genius, and it isn’t reserved for ‘creative types’. Nor is it something that is beyond our power to cultivate, even if we’ve never experienced it before. It seems the chance to live wholeheartedly isn’t defined by the vocation we pursue, but by how we pursue it.
I have never been one of those consistently obsessed people, and I’ll admit I hold them in the sort of awe some reserve for unicorns—magical creatures, possibly with superpowers. I have experienced true creative obsession only in brief flashes, lasting hours to weeks. But even that is enough for me to understand the power it holds, and the reasons to cultivate it. If we aren’t at least a little obsessed with the path we have chosen—be it running a store, a marathon, an orchestra, or an adding machine—then do we really love it enough to keep pursuing it? And if we do love what we are chasing after, it seems it deserves, if even for those brief flashes, our fullest attention.