Obsessives of the world, Unite! The future is yours!
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” — Ayn Rand. 1905–1982.
[ Author’s note: I’m using the term obsession broadly here to mean any activity or thought that consumes one mentally for extended periods of time. I will argue that we all have obsessions and that, in fact, such tendencies should not always be viewed as a psychological disorder that needs to be cured. ]
I’ve written often and verbosely, some might even say ad nauseam, about the fact that I suffer from a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (see links at the end of this post). The one thing I’ve never mentioned is the stunning fact that I was not even aware of this until recently! It took me only fifty years to realize I was OCD! It took me only a year or two more to realize that I’m a serial obsessor and that that’s a good thing.
Don’t worry, I don’t wash my hands obsessively nor do I do anything remotely unsavory. In my case, the disease is fairly benign. I may obsess over Bob Dylan’s music for a few years, collecting all his albums and listening to them in chronological order; I may obsess over the show Seinfeld, watching every episode in the order they originally aired; I may run long distances obsessively for a years but the only thing I damage in the process is my own body; I may work night and day on a project but sooner or later the product ships and I move on to another project. You get the idea.
I’ve also observed that I tend to obsess over something for a while and then move on to the next subject, hence “serial obsessor.” To be clear, the term is meant to have positive connotations. There are only so many hours in the day that I can dedicate to my obsessions, so it’s a zero sum game. I have to give up on one obsession to find time for the next one. I don’t mind that in the least. It’s only in moving on to different obsessions that we truly free ourselves from the current ones.
Some of my obsessions last for decades (I’ve read books obsessively my entire life) while others come and go. For example, I smoked obsessively (two to three packs a day) for a few years as a teenager and young adult before coming to my senses and quitting cold turkey.
Let’s take running, which I did obsessively for over two decades: running marathons and half-marathons, running for hours on a treadmill when the weather was bad outside, running until my toenails turned black, running until I had massive back problems… and yet I kept running.
I ended up having lower back surgery to remove bone spurs from my spine caused by a running injury, could barely walk for two years, and what did I do once I recovered? Well, of course, I went right back to running! It was only when the doctors scratched their heads and threw up their hands regarding the tendinitis in my ankles that I finally stopped.
Time for the next “serial obsession.” So I can’t run any more. What do I do? I start cycling like a madman, an average of two to three hours a day, pretty much every day. I biked six thousand miles last year and climbed over 500,000 feet in elevation (that’s 17 times up Mt. Everest)!
Earlier this year, I had a head-on collision with a Tesla Model S. I ended up impaling my knee in its front windshield and somersaulting over the top before landing behind the car in a heap. Thankfully, I walked away with only a few scratches. Call it luck, call it what you will. Yet, four days later what was I doing? Biking up the mountain again! And I’m set to exceed both those mileage and elevation numbers this year. It would be fair to say that I’m obsessing over cycling these days.
“One trait that differentiated [Bill Gates and Paul Allen] was focus. Allen’s mind would flit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor.” — Walter Isaacson. The Innovators.
It was only once I retired, once I had a few hours to sit and think, that I realized my entire life had been about one obsession after another; that everything in life that I was any good at, or that I enjoyed, I did obsessively.
Or perhaps I was confusing cause and effect. Perhaps I was good at those things, perhaps I enjoyed those activities, exactly because I obsessed over them and spent countless hours practicing them.
The next observation was even more interesting: it wasn’t just me, it’s true about all of us. Being obsessive about something, about anything, is the normal state of being; and there is nothing wrong or abnormal about it if it’s a positive pursuit. I may obsess over books or running, you may obsess over football or civil war memorabilia.
To obsess is human. All it means is that you spend an inordinate amount of time on “it”, whatever “it” may be. And by spending more time and more brain cycles on it, it’s only natural that you end up being better at “it” and knowing more about “it”.
Apple products are what they are because Steve Jobs obsessed over industrial design, over fit and finish, over usability. Jeff Bezos made Amazon successful by obsessing over supply Chain Management. Darwin obsessed over mollusks and finches for thirty years before publishing his findings. Leonardo would obsessively look at his paintings for hours before making a single brush stroke. Roger Federer. Raphael Nadal. Michael Jordan. Beckham. You get my point.
But there’s a dark side to obsessive behavior as well. An alcoholic obsesses over his next drink. A gambler obsesses over his cards. A pedophile obsesses over children. Jeffrey Dahmer obsessed over the taste of human flesh.
You can be sure that Dahmer didn’t wake up one morning and decide to do what it is that he did. You can bet he obsessed about the deed for hours and hours every day, for months, for years, before he finally crossed the line.
Humans can obsess over just about anything. It doesn’t matter what you want to accomplish, good or bad; I can pretty much guarantee that you will only be successful if you obsess over it. It’s only through obsessions that the world moves forward. Malcolm Gladwell famously said you need ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert at anything. I say he was on the right track but the main point is not the number of hours but that you pursue “it” obsessively.
To be normal is to be average, to do everything and care about everything equally. I don’t know of anyone who is “normal.” To obsess over something is to spend many hours and days thinking about it. Sooner or later, even to the dimmest witted of us, those hours translate into insights, into ways to move the state of the art forward. The key is pursuing positive obsessions and also knowing when to stop and move on to the next topic.
So… Obsessives of the world, Unite! It’s not abnormal to be obsessive. If anything, it’s an advantage. It’s the human condition. You own the future. You’re the only ones who will ever move the needle. Stand up and take your place in history. Just make sure you pick good obsessions.
“If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.” — Shimon Peres. 1923–2016.
Our main concern, as a society, should not be to combat negative obsessions after they’ve taken root but rather how we turn people on to positive obsessions in the first place. Obsessions can and should be seen as a badge of honor, not a disease, not an abnormal condition that needs to be cured. It’s good to be obsessive… if you only pick the right topic to obsess over. Work, not gambling. Reading, not video games. Running, not smoking. Music, not cannibalism!
Nothing good ever happens in this world without someone obsessing over something. Neither does anything bad. Further, it’s much easier to swap one obsession for another than it is to try to get rid of it. Pick your obsessions wisely. You’ll be spending a lot of time on them.
- To obsess is human. The propensity to obsess — over something, over anything — is present in all of us.
- Addictions and obsessions are two sides of the same coin; addictions are just the ones frowned upon by society.
- It’s okay to obsess. In fact, many obsessions are actually good for you.
- The only thing standing between us and failure or success is our choice of obsessions in life. Choose your obsessions wisely.
- The most effective way to get rid of an addiction or obsession is to find something else with which to replace it. There are only so many hours in the day you can dedicate to your obsessions.
- It’s time for us, as a society, to stop treating each of these ills as unique (smoking, alcoholism, pedophilia, gambling, drugs, video games, you name it). If we only recognize that they’re all addictions, we can apply rule #5 above: don’t try to fight each one individually — one with AA programs, another with methadone, a third with counseling, etc. The better solution is to find something else to obsess over.
- It’s much easier, and more cost effective, to instill positive obsessions into our children than to try to reverse a negative obsession once they’re adults.
A few other blog posts I’ve written on this topic:
The Addiction Gene
"If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time."…
"We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrassed us. This is moral progress." Sam Harris. The…