Go Ahead, Obsess!

Forget life balance: Throwing yourself 110 percent into a complex project could be the key to creative breakthroughs—and to a meaningful life.

By Eric Maisel Ph.D., Ann Maisel, Carlin Flora, published on May 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Obsession gets a bad rap. of course, obsessions with people, or with irrational beliefs such as those held by OCD sufferers, can be unhealthy or even dangerous. We are lobbying for something quite different: productive obsessing, or putting yourself wholeheartedly into a useful and meaningful passion. These healthy preoccupations are an antidote to boredom and passivity. They aren't just for people driven to accomplish something out of the ordinary. They are for everyone. We firmly believe that doing things by half—merely dabbling in a hobby or professional endeavor—produces sad human beings. It's dangerous to feel as though you aren't making a meaningful contribution. We don't want you to look at yourself in the mirror and see a person who might have done this but didn't, or who loves that but, for some odd reason, takes no active interest in it. In order to lead a life that makes you proud, you likely need to up the ante and get obsessed. Sure, you might experience fatigue and frustration at times, but you'll be able to deal with those side effects because you'll be immersed in something stimulating and important.

Some people know what their productive obsession would be—they just haven't committed themselves to it yet. Others have vague interests but don't really know where to begin, even if they like the idea of delving deep into a project. The productive obsession you decide to cultivate should be rooted in love, interest, and a desire to better our shared circumstances here in the world. Think big!

Say, for example, that you produce one-of-a-kind water jars but it's been your secret ambition to tackle a large ecological art project. If the sale of your water jars pays the rent, they probably regularly push the eco-art project right out of your mind and off the table. That's often how ambitious plans get lost or even vanish. A good way to start is to dedicate yourself to a productive obsession for a month. In this case, you would choose the eco-art project, even at the risk of a temporary income dip.

When you obsess, you learn how to extinguish distractions so that you can concentrate. You accept the hard existential fact that if you intend to matter you must act as if you matter. You retrain your brain, asking it to halt its pursuit of fluff and worry, to instead embrace its own potential. In addition, you announce that you prefer grand pursuits to ordinary ones; you stand in solidarity with other members of your species who have opted for big thinking and big doing. And you turn yourself over—even to the point of threat and exhaustion—to your own loves and interests.

Cultivating a productive obsession involves going on a long journey, with dips and peaks in motivation. Knowing whether you should stick with something or switch gears is more an art than a science, and external markers of success are not the only way to measure how your project is coming along. Still, if you are truly spinning your wheels, with no growth in your own abilities or in the world's interest in your output, it's time to regroup. Being obsessed with a brilliant screenplay idea for 40 years without ever turning it into an actual film is not productive. While you are defending yourself with your fantasy of making your dream movie, your brain is held captive.

A productive obsession provokes all sorts of mental states—euphoria when something goes brilliantly, irritation when you feel thwarted, fatigue after hours of mental struggle, excitement as one idea leads to another. You can prepare for these states and decide beforehand how you will handle them. Have you grown a little too agitated? (A hot shower works wonders.) Keep inventing new coping strategies and remember the ones that have proven effective in the past.

Much of the difficulty in pursuing a productive obsession resides in switching gears between your normal life and your obsessive life. You'll need to learn how to toggle effortlessly, so that, for instance, no time is wasted and no internal drama created as you leave your day job and turn to your symphony. Imagine that you have—or are—a flawless transmission system, whisper-quiet and beautifully constructed, one that allows you to move efficiently through the day, revving up to obsess and revving down to peel potatoes.

Each of us has that do-nothing, watch-a-little-more-television place in our hearts and that harder-to-engage work-well-and-think-intensely place. The life of your productive obsession depends on your constant recommitment, which sounds like "I am doing this, damn it!" Your mind may prefer its habitual ways and opt for fear, fantasy, worry, regret, or idleness. The instant your mind produces one of its stories about why you ought to abandon your productive obsession—because you can't succeed, because a storm is coming—shout, "No!"

Embark on a month of productive obsessing, then another, and, ultimately, a lifetime. If you end up with a ballet like Swan Lake, a business like Apple, or a new theory of relativity, congratulations. But congratulate yourself just as much if what you end up with is a stream of brainstorms in the service of a fulfilling life. —Eric Maisel, Ph.D. and Ann Maisel

Rebecca Skloot : Story Wrangling and Writing

As a 16-year-old, Rebecca Skloot spent hours each week in the waiting room of the hospital where her father, who had contracted a virus that caused him serious brain damage, was receiving experimental treatments. "I remember having complicated feelings about it, sitting with the other patients who were hoping the procedures would help them," she says. Skloot was not a typical teen: She was an autodidact who read voraciously on the history of science.

Skloot's intellectual and personal concerns of the time seemed to magically converge around an offhand comment made by her biology teacher. He mentioned that the most popular line of cells sold to researchers, known as HeLa cells, were taken in the 1950s from a young African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks. "I was very aware of the fact that Henrietta was black. I thought, 'Is this another one of those stories of racial prejudice and medicine that I've been reading about? Did something horrible happen here?'"

She began to answer the question in earnest as a grad student and discovered that Lacks's cells were removed without her permission and that her descendants had long been in the dark about her posthumous contributions to medicine. Skloot chased the story for a decade.

It took her a year to gain the confidence of Lacks's youngest daughter. She went through three publishing houses and four editors. She went 10 years without visiting her hometown. ("I've been saying to my nephews, 'I promise when the book is over, you're going to have an aunt.'") And she put on hold her desire to have children. ("I said for years that I would have a kid by age 35. I'm almost 40 now, so I'm going to try to have a family far later than biology would like me to.")

Emotional support from her parents and friends kept Skloot going, and above all her own sense that Lacks's story was an important one to tell. "Henrietta's cousins were in their 80s when I interviewed them," Skloot says. "Sometimes I would talk to someone and a week later she would die. So I had this incredible feeling of responsibility, knowing I was the one person who was catching all this history as it was vanishing."

In February, Crown published her epic book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to great acclaim. Skloot strongly believes that it was the long-term ruminating and exploring that enabled her to create such a nuanced, complex work. "One of the amazing aspects of this story is that there are no clear answers. You go back and forth thinking, 'Oh, this poor family,' and then 'Oh, but the poor scientists.'" Because Skloot took the time to pull out and examine so many strands, Henrietta Lacks will now be part of literary and science history: The book hit number two on the New York Times best-seller list.

Rodney Allen Trice: Turning Trash into Treasure

Rodney Allen Trice calls himself the love child of Martha Stewart, MacGyver, Al Gore, and Keith Richards. It's a spot-on (if highly implausible) characterization: Trice is artistic, handy, an avid recycler, and a shaggy-haired fan of chunky jewelry. For the past 20 years, he's had his eyes peeled for objects that could be reimagined as furniture: A bird cage becomes a chandelier dripping in crystal, a vacuum cleaner a whimsical floor lamp, and a grocery-store scale crowns a dainty nightstand.

As a young graphic designer, Trice took his first paycheck to a high-end store in the hopes of putting together a "grown-up" apartment. He pointed at an Eames chair and was told it was $3,600. "I headed out with my tail between my legs," Trice says. "Then I noticed that people from New York throw out the most amazing stuff. I started to drag it home. If I couldn't have the fancy Eames chair, I wanted something special." The first piece he made, a coffee table, was once a red restroom stall door. He affixed pipes for legs and faucets for embellishments.

Though they've gotten plenty of praise, his one-of-a-kind pieces haven't yet sold well enough for him to quit his magazine design gigs. About three years ago, Trice felt deflated by the increasing demands of his day jobs (which ate up 50 hours each week) and decreasing hopes of breaking through to the next level with his creations.

"I called my sister," Trice recalls. "I told her that several friends had just bought houses—something I couldn't even imagine. I told her I was sick of going to the studio and that I was thinking of giving it up. She said to me, 'Rodney, I don't have time to talk. I have to go feed my kids. But I'm going to say this: Ever since I've known you, you have been making things, whether you were taking apart toys and putting them together or getting into Dad's tool closet. I believe in my heart that if you give up the studio, in a month or two you're going to regret it.'"

"My first thought was, 'Bitch!' But she was right." After taking a break and reading inspirational books such as Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, Trice was reenergized. He's now on a mission to teach others how to turn refrigerators into wardrobes and crutches into tables, in classes and on the small screen. He's currently filming a pilot for a how-to design show.

"I was very afraid of being ordinary when I was little," Trice says. "And I'm still that kid who made latch-hook rugs and string art and just had fun. I've taken a hard road in some ways, but as the poem goes, it has made all the difference."

Walter Kühr: Conducting a Dream

When his mother bought him an accordion in the suburbs of Frankfurt, Germany, 12-year-old Walter Kühr fell in love with the unwieldy jumble of shiny buttons and keys. He came to the U.S. in 1989 as a young man and played tangos and polkas in restaurants and subway stations. Fourteen years ago he opened Main Squeeze, now the last accordion shop standing in New York City. "The accordion is so expressive," Kühr says. "It can whisper, it can scream, it can be ridiculous, it can be seductive, it can be anything."

Kühr's true passion literally came to him in a dream. Six years ago, after seeing various acts perform at an annual accordion festival in Pennsylvania, he dreamt of being on a bus with 18 attractive women (all in pigtails—perhaps a memory of German schoolmates?) composing his very own accordion orchestra.

"I was super electrified," Kühr says. "I woke up at four in the morning and there was no way I could go back to sleep. I made a huge pot of coffee and wrote my dream down, every detail. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to do it."

At dawn, Kühr began making phone calls. "I needed musical arrangements, money, a rehearsal room, and, of course, women who could play the accordion well enough! I was running around like a madman. It's the first time I was ever successful at organizing something, because I really wanted it." Nine months later, The Main Squeeze Orchestra, which Kühr touts as "The Western World's Only 14-Piece All-Female Accordion Orchestra," played its debut concert.

Kühr spends hours arranging musical numbers—most of which are far outside the typical accordion repertoire. Hits include the Brandenburg concertos and "Bohemian Rhapsody."

The orchestra hasn't yet garnered fame or riches, but that was never the point. The idea was to create something he knew would delight everyone. "My girlfriend says, 'Your orchestra is more important than me, it's more important than your business!' But I can't help it. And I think she finds it charming at the same time. She probably prefers it to a man obsessed with money."

Last year Kühr worked even more feverishly to arrange the theme "Once Upon a Time in the West." Suffering from lymphoma, he thought it might be his last arrangement. He even imagined the ladies playing it at his funeral. Instead, they loyally tended to his shop while he recovered from a bone marrow transplant.

"No matter how down I am, just thinking of those girls makes me happy. The orchestra is the pride and joy of my existence."

Laura Stachel: Giving Light and Life

Two years ago, Laura Stachel, an ob-gyn, was shocked by conditions at the large state hospital in Nigeria where she was conducting public-health research. "What I saw amounted to a chamber of horrors," Stachel says. The electricity crackled on for just a few hours each day, leaving doctors and midwives to deliver babies—and suture wounds—by candlelight. There were no functional blood bank refrigerators or ways for staff in different rooms to communicate. And as a result, in a country that has the highest maternal death rate in the world, critically ill patients were turned away with no recourse.

Distraught, Stachel sent painful letters home to her husband, Hal Aronson. "He had built a solar-powered home back in the '80s for his family, so he knows very well how solar power can work off the grid," she says. "He wrote back, 'Maybe we can get our family and friends to put together some money for a solar electric system.' That note changed my life, because in that moment I got very invested in helping the hospital."

Soon after she returned to California, Stachel secured funds and launched a nonprofit agency, WE CARE Solar. She wanted to go back to Nigeria to demonstrate how the new system would work, so Aronson made a kit of solar panels and rechargeable batteries small enough to easily get through customs. The workers who saw this "solar suitcase" begged to keep it. "It powered headlamps and walkie-talkies, which allowed nurses and doctors to assemble in a flash. It completely shifted the dynamics of emergency care," Stachel said.

Once word got out about the invention, hospitals throughout Africa and beyond began requesting solar suitcases. "This has turned our life upside down," says Stachel. "It's the first thing I think about in the morning, it's the last thing I think about at night. These women are dying and there's no one to speak for them, and I can't turn my back on them now that I know." She's taken 6 trips to Nigeria, each time leaving behind her 8-year-old daughter. "Hal has to carry the family when I'm not there. But he sees that what we're doing is important, and that I'm personally fulfilled. I'm never happier than when I'm in Africa." Stachel relishes the break from the materialistic rat race of the U.S., and the chance to connect with and help people who are struggling to survive.

"I woke up one morning and said, 'Hal, on every continent there are people who have light because of you.' He looked at me and said, 'It's because of us.' Somehow we've harnessed the best of our talents to be able to have an impact." —Carlin Flora