Balance is Out. Obsession is In.

Obsession - more than "balance" - is good for your creative health.

Posted Aug 17, 2010

How can we indulge our creative obsessions without them consuming our minds and lives? Psychotherapist, author, and creativity coach Dr. Eric Maisel suggests we "forget life balance" and give in to obsession. In his latest book Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions (New World Library 2010), Maisel and his wife Ann Maisel lay out clear guidelines for doing so. I sent Dr. Maisel questions regarding productive obsessions and creativity. Below are his replies. Post any comments or questions for either of us. See brainstormthebook.com

JD: How do you distinguish between productive obsession and unproductive obsession?

A productive obsession arises from our interests, passions, and meaning-making needs. An unproductive obsession arises from our doubts, fears, and anxieties. Because we're a petty anxious species, most of our obsessions tend to be of the unproductive variety. For most people, it takes a bit of practice and intentionality to create productive obsessions, whereas unproductive obsessions tend to arise of their own accord out of our anxieties.

JD: Your book's title and introduction suggest that the brain has a neurological "cluster" of sorts during productive obsession. Later in the book, you suggest that this description is mostly a metaphor. Are there any neurological studies that correlate obsession with neurogenesis or neuroplasticity?

My intuition is that there aren't but I haven't investigated the literature well enough to know one way or the other. In Brainstorm, we use the "neuronal gestalt" model presented by Susan Greenfield in her book Journey to the Centers of the Mind.

Max Cohen from Pi cracks under obsession.

JD: When I think of complete creative and intellectual obsession, I think of the character Max Cohen in Darren Aronofksy's film Pi in which the brilliant number theorist shuts off everything - love, money, religious intrigue - in devotion to his pursuit of truth. Cohen suffers from his own kind of brainstorm - cluster headaches, paranoia, high social anxiety. Ultimately, he goes over the edge and renders his brain so he can become a happy simpleton. If there were a continuum between, say, Alex Cohen and Forrest Gump, where is your ideal example of productive obsession?

Max Cohen from Pi cracks under obsession.

Here is my hypothetical ideal example: a person who really bites into one thing after another in a serially obsessive way, producing one book or movie or vaccine after another, and who is also fully able to turn off his obsessions so that he can have a normal, loving, everyday life that includes relationships and relaxation. Forrest Cohen, perhaps? Or Max Gump?

JD: Our current cultural climate sends us messages to live "whole" and "balanced" lives. Do you think such messages thwart our potential for "productive obsession"? Are you encouraging us to get just a little ill, broken, and imbalanced, so to speak - in good measure? A sort of balanced imbalance?

I would put it slightly differently. I would ask people to really think through what "balance" means to an intelligent, eager, enthusiastic, energetic person. Does it mean never exhausting yourself in the service of your work? Does it mean never spending long stretches of time involved and engaged in something you love? I think that when you personally define "balance" in a way that does justice to what you want to accomplish in life, you get a picture very different from one that you might see painted in an advertisement for a day spa.

JD: "Making the Ordinary Extraordinary" is the title of Brainstorm's fifth chapter. Could you elaborate on how productive obsession could help some readers make the ordinary extraordinary - a key focus of this blog.

It is one thing to have a nice, small reaction to a beautiful blue sky. It is another thing to become so obsessed by the power of blue that you paint a series of startling paintings in which every blue sky moves us in a different, profound way-think of the blue skies of Van Gogh's landscapes. It is ordinary and unexceptional to have a positive feeling for blue and something else again to obsess about it and produce extraordinary paintings as a result.

JD: In that same chapter, you refer to the "thin line between worry and wonder." What is that thin line? And What role does wonder play in productive obsession?

It is one thing to think, "I wonder what Jane wants to say to Max in chapter 3?" and another thing to think, "I'm worried that I don't know what Jane wants to say to Max in chapter 3!" In the first instance we go to a dreamy, positive, productive place in our being and actually work. In the second instance we go to a fearful, negative, unproductive place in our being and, rather than working, worry about our work. That dreamy wondering is a core component of productive obsessing.

JD: How do recommend that we obsessive types have "productive idleness"?

Have someone hit us over the head with a bat and render us unconscious <smile>? I think the answer is that we have to get a grip on our mind and talk ourselves into the belief that idleness has value. One of the ways to do this is to reframe idleness as something else-recharging your batteries, incubating your next project, and so on. Another is to do simple things that you actually enjoy-reading a book followed by taking a shower-rather than planning elaborate "periods of idleness" (sometimes known as vacations). We may actually only need a little idleness, rather than a lot-this harkens back to the question of how an individual personally defines "balance."

JD: In this country, we're hearing again a lot of talk about education reform. What one or two key changes in education would you recommend to encourage young people to harness productive obsession?

Add a 45-minute module every day at every level, from kindergarten through graduate school, on "big thinking" (which unfortunately we'll have to call "critical thinking," as that is the culturally-approved phrase). During this period kids would be asked a large question-say, "How do you choose an appropriate penalty for a crime?"-and invited to think about what an answer might look like.

JD: Is there anything else you would like to say or share?

If you'd like to productively obsess, quiet your mind a bit, locate something that interests you, show up in its pursuit, accept that the process may be hard and messy, and enjoy yourself! That's about it.

Thank you, Eric.

Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant, speaker, and coach for writers around the world. He is author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing and founder of the Yoga As Muse for Authentic Writing Programs & Facilitator Training.

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