The successful theoretical chemist Henry Eyring once said to his son while working on complex mathematical equation, “We were working a problem just like this a week ago. You don’t seem to understand it much better. Isn’t this what you think about all the time?”
As the young man responded negatively, his father asked, “When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?”
Again, negative. The boy didn’t think about complex mathematics and physics in his spare time. His father, who had hoped all of his children would become successful scientists then said, “Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.”
“Obsession”: A Bad Word?
In today’s world, the word “obsession” has been increasingly weighed down with negative connotations. When you think of an obsessed individual, you may picture a boy playing video games 18 hours per day, a woman who has spent $12 million on plastic surgery, or someone who washes their hands 100 times a day. You may view the characteristic of obsessiveness as a psychological disorder worth treating, avoiding, and fearing.
In truth, however, most of the greatest contributions to the society of man have been made by artists, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, writers, entrepreneuers, business professionals, and the like who have achieved greatness as a result of what may be labeled today as “unhealthy obsessive behavior.” The greatest classical composers and performers are those who have given their entire lives to their art. Thousands of hours of passionate thought and practice have led these self-made prodigies to such levels of success.
Practice: Pleasure or Torture?
I remember as a student in my university’s school of music that I struggled to practice my bass three hours a day based on the curriculum requirement. Over time, I began to dread practicing, gazing out the window of my tiny practice room wishing to be anywhere else or doing anything else. Preferably, I would rather be hanging out with my friends, writing (my “other” passion), or playing and writing songs on the guitar.
As I showed up at my weekly lesson with my bass professor, he sensed my weariness and began to probe me with questions, like the scientist had his son. He wanted to find out how passionate I was about playing the bass, if it was something I truly loved to do, and if I dreamed and ate and breathed “bass” all the time.
Practice, of course, isn’t always “fun,” he said, but he wondered if I had the internal direction or desire I’d need to become the player he hoped I’d become. He asked if I loved to practice as much as he did when he was in school, painting a portrait of himself as a young student (with hair back then) who just couldn’t get enough of anything related to the bass. I just didn’t. I expressed to him my conflicting interests in other things, especially writing, and after some thought, he very sadly, but genuinely proposed that I reconsider my choice to major in music, encouraging me to do what I was most passionate about.
Well, I did finish my music degree and still perform classically. But I also endured a fifth year of college to complete an English minor and take as many writing classes as I could. And since I graduated, I admit, I’ve spent much, much more time writing that I have practicing. And while I feel most myself when I’m playing classical music and take every gig I can get, it’s writing that I think about in my spare time, when I shower, and when I walk down the street.
Embracing Your Obsessions
The word “obsession” and the word “passion” are practically synonymous. But notice when someone says, “I have a passion for music,” it doesn’t sound like a psychological disorder, but like a wonderful thing—and it is! In order to become a truly great musician, yes, you have to practice your brains out, but you also have to love it enough to practice your brains out when you could be doing other things. You’ll find yourself practicing and listening to classical music because you truly, deeply, love it to the point of obsession.
Allowing yourself to embrace your passions and be “obsessed” with what you love takes a lot of courage. It means setting aside other activities you may enjoy doing to do what you love doing even more. It means letting yourself be crazy enough to spend hours at a time learning or creating something that thrills you to no end. It means doing something you feel you “shouldn’t” be doing if you were a rational person.
So no matter what you’re passionate about, whether it be your violin, your children, or the novel on your nightstand, don’t be afraid—for once in your life—to be a little obsessed. Live a little. Be a little crazy. You may be surprised to see how far it takes you.