Monday Mornings with Madison

Obsession: The Shared Quality of the Uber-Successful

Obsession is an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes in a person’s mind; a compulsive or even irrational fixation. Obsessive thinking often leads to habitual, uncontrollable behavior.  Mildly obsessive behavior is seen as a personality quirk.  In extreme cases, it is even characterized as a mental defect.  In fact, there is even a recognized psychological condition called Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder.  People who have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder may engage in repeated illogical behaviors such as serial hand washing, compulsive checking (to see if a door is locked or an oven is off) or hoarding.  Psychologists think that perhaps obsessive behavior originates from the brain’s warning system to ensure people worry about everyday things such as whether something is still good to eat, or to be aware if a noise is approaching from behind or to be alert to protect children from harm.  Then it grows from there into thoughts and behaviors that are ‘out of control.’

Most people don’t want to be obsessive or be perceived by others as obsessed.  In a world where one’s time and attention is pulled in many different directions, there is a general desire to achieve balance – balance between work and play; balance between taking care of oneself and doing for others; balance between action and rest.  If balance is the ideal, then obsession is generally regarded as ‘the enemy.’  But some think that perhaps obsession has a bad rap.  Is obsession always a bad thing?   Can obsession be a good thing?

Obsession Fuels the Fire

Recently, a Quora user posted a question asking how he could be as successful as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Elon Musk.   This spurred quite a discussion.  Among the many who responded to the question was Canadian author Justine Musk, ex-wife of Elon Musk, the super successful Tesla and Space X chief.  Her answer has since gone viral and was even quoted in the NY Times.  Having been married to Musk for eight years and having hob-knobbed with some of the richest and most successful people in the nation (if not the world), Justine Musk did have some interesting insights to offer.   Here is part of what she wrote:

Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things. Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider ‘success’, so know that you don’t have to be Richard or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way. But if you’re extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point. These people tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way. They developed strategies to survive, and as they grow older they find ways to apply these strategies to other things, and create for themselves a distinct and powerful advantage. They don’t think the way other people think. They see things from angles that unlock new ideas and insights. Other people consider them to be somewhat insane.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

If you’re not obsessed, then stop what you’re doing and find whatever does obsess you. It helps to have an ego, but you must be in service to something bigger if you are to inspire the people you need to help you  (and make no mistake, you will need them). That ‘something bigger’ prevents you from going off into the ether when people flock round you and tell you how fabulous you are when you aren’t and how great your stuff is when it isn’t. Don’t pursue something because you “want to be great”. Pursue something because it fascinates you, because the pursuit itself engages and compels you. Extreme people combine brilliance and talent with an *insane* work ethic, so if the work itself doesn’t drive you, you will burn out or fall by the wayside or your extreme competitors will crush you and make you cry.

Follow your obsessions until a problem starts to emerge, a big meaty challenging problem that impacts as many people as possible, that you feel [compelled] to solve……. It might take years to find that problem, because you have to explore different bodies of knowledge, collect the dots and then connect and complete them.

Justine Musk’s point is that obsession with something good is one of the qualities that the most successful people share… the driving force that helps a person persevere in the face of obstacles, challenges, exhaustion, set backs, failures and disappointments.  Obsession is what fuels the fire, especially if it is something more noble and valuable than the pursuit of wealth.  As she said “Pursue something because it fascinates you, because the pursuit itself engages and compels you.”

If we look at the uber-successful people cited by the Quora post, they too were and/or are all obsessed with something.  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is obsessed with connecting the world.   A shrewd and intelligent person, Zuckerberg focused on that which eluded him most… connecting with others.  His quest to connect has driven him to surpass lawsuits, risks and setbacks.  A billionaire in his own right, Zuckerberg isn’t looking at how to become richer.  Leading the world’s largest social network, with 1.39 billion monthly active users is not enough.  Zuckerberg is now looking at how to get FB into China, to connect with its staggering population of 1.4 billion.  Connection is his obsession.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group of companies, is obsessed with faster and better forms of exploration.  In 1986, Branson crossed the Atlantic in the fastest time ever recorded, on his boat the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II. The next year, the Virgin Atlantic Flyer, history’s largest hot-air balloon, became the first to travel the same path. In 1991, Branson soared over the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the Canadian Arctic, again establishing records while travelling at speeds of more than two hundred miles per hour.  A true explorer at heart, Branson also established Virgin Air to enable others to also explore.  Currently, Branson’s newest company, Virgin Galactic, plans to become the first to offer regularly scheduled trips into space.  His obsession is exploration.

The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was obsessed with perfection and the quality of things both seen and unseen.  He was genuinely passionate about the way things are crafted. Not merely content to set specifications and see that they were met, Jobs frequently went above and beyond to ensure that the products he had a hand in were made in the best way possible.  His goal was perfection.  Learned from his father, Jobs loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts that could not be seen.  He said his father refused to use poor wood for the back of cabinets or to build a fence that wasn’t constructed as well on the back side as it was the front. To sleep well at night, the aesthetic and the qualityhad to be carried all the way through.  Jobs was obsessed with quality.

As for Elon Musk, Justine Musk’s ex-husband, he too falls into the obsessed category, even if she denied that she was referring specifically to him in her post.  A cross between Jobs and Branson, Musk is obsessed with perfection in all his products, from cars to spacecraft.  His goal is to make what he makes the best possible.  And he is a micromanager on steroids.  In fact, he calls himself a nano-manager.  If micro means a thousandth of something and nano is a billionth of something, then you get the idea of the kind of manager that Musk is.  In fact, speaking about himself, Elon once told Business Insider magazine that “I always see what’s … wrong. When I see a car or a rocket or spacecraft, I only see what’s wrong.  I never see what’s right.”  He is famous, or perhaps infamous, for his impossibly high standards.  But is precisely that obsessive demand for perfection that made the Tesla Roadster and the Model S so engaging.  He has referred to himself as having OCD, the abbreviation commonly used for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Musk is obsessed with making things the best they can be.

Indeed, determination becomes obsession and then it becomes all that matters. When that happens, obsession is a powerful mental state.  Human beings are goal-striving organisms. People experience more satisfaction and joy from striving to achieve goals than from actually achieving them. When a person works hard to build a business, the first time there is a modest jump in sales, there is a feeling of triumph.  Small successes are motivating, and they help to stay focused. Small successes also feed the internal obsession to keep striving.  Success fuels obsession which then fuels effort to persevere which leads to more success, and the cycle begins again.  Rather than a vicious cycle, it can be a virtuous cycle.  Consider that Thomas Edison tested over 3000 filaments before he came up with his version of a practical light bulb, something he did not invent but did improve. But he did invent over 1093 other things.  Edison was obsessed with innovation.

When channeled into positive activity, obsession can be the force that leads to great inventions, spectacular breakthroughs and immeasurable success.  And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Quote of the Week

“There is something about giving everything to your profession. In Italian, an obsession is not necessarily negative. It’s the art of putting all your energy into one thing.” Renzo Piano


© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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