[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"Would you say you're obsessed with running?" Mike asked me the other day. I thought for a moment, "No," I said. "Yes. Maybe?" I would be significantly less happy if I didn't, or couldn't. But generally, I get obsessed with most things I really want to do.
The word obsessed has a bad reputation, but I'm not sure it's entirely deserved. Obsession is a noun meaning: the state of being obsessed with someone or something; an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind.
Synonyms: fixation, consuming passion, mania, compulsion, preoccupation, enthusiasm, addiction, craze, phobia, complex, neurosis.
I don't know much, but I do know that the word "neurosis" seems a lot worse than "passion." Moderation is widely touted as a good thing, in regards to diet, work, exercise, etc. But moderation is kind of boring too. Charles Dickens famously wrote all morning and took long (3+ hour walks) every afternoon. You could say that we was "obsessed" with writing. Ernest Hemingway kept track of how many words he wrote every day. He may have been "obsessed" with producing. In 2017, Serena Williams spent roughly three hours a day on the tennis court, and an additional 2 in the gym. Chris Stapleton has written over 170 songs since he started in 2001, and he doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon. Successful people are obsessed (or preoccupied, or passionate, or fixated, or whatever) on the thing they love to do. It's not always bad, and moderation doesn't always work.
Obsession is a powerful mental state, and obsessive thoughts can be uncomfortable or intrusive, but they don't have to be. They can be a passing occurrence or a long-term interest. Sometimes, obsessive thoughts are brought on by stress and result in worry. Other times, obsessive thoughts are nothing more than thoughts focused around something you like thinking about.
Psychologists don't totally know why people become obsessed, but they do have a few hypotheses. People often show a genetic predisposition to being obsessive, and it might be something that's inherited through DNA. Environmental factors also play a role, particularly for those experiencing high levels of stress. It's safe to say nobody knows what causes it, and obsessions don't always last.
Positive obsessions are when you're driven by what you love, rather than by what you fear. Dedicating all (or most) of your attention and energy to a discipline is the only way to achieve mastery over it, and this sort of single-minded determination is far from bad. Normalcy is pathological, and people have an inherent, almost irresistible temptation to label behaviors deviating from the average as dysfunctional. The behaviors that are necessary for self-actualization and fulfillment might be labeled obsessive, but that doesn't mean they're negative.
If you live a disciplined life focused around something your passionate about, someone will think you're obsessive. Someone will think you're extreme. A lot of people probably won't understand you, and that's okay. Positive obsessions result in mastery, and it's safe to say that you can't really master any discipline by being just "kind of" into it.
Obsessive thoughts or behaviors are negative if they are intrusive; if you don't feel like you have a choice about whether or not you do something, and if you're driven by fear instead of by passion.
A good question to ask yourself is whether your obsession is leading you down a road to become a more joyful, fulfilled version of yourself, or if it's leading you down a dead end that's holding you back from fulfillment and joy.
Being obsessed with a particular goal or practice goes hand-in-hand with being highly disciplined. Jocko Willink wrote an entire book called Discipline Equals Freedom, but he didn't come up with the phrase, Aristotle did. The idea that being highly disciplined is the pathway not only to achievement but personal happiness is not new. And while some might find discipline "obsessive," others know that it is the only real way forward.
I consider myself lucky because I found my passions early. It's easy to be disciplined when you love what you do, and when you can see tangible forward progress. It's also easy for other people to label you "obsessed." It's easy, in some ways, to shun the idea of discipline entirely; to float through life with no real passion and no real reason to try. But I would argue it feels just as uncomfortable and empty to live a life devoid of passion.