Posted by: standing_baba | August 5, 2010

(Un)Healthy Obsessions

Mountains behind Paraty

(Paraty, Brazil) The climb from sea level to one thousand feet took longer than expected, partly because I pedaled the alternating valleys of pasture land and thick trees slowly to appreciate the sunset, partly because the thirteen kilometers of road was at times impossibly difficult, vertical like a wall. I arrived after nightfall, walking my bike through mud puddles without a flashlight.

The directions I scribbled onto scrap paper lead me up a windy road to the top of a mountain carpeted in tropical vegetation. When I confirmed the address with a neighbor—in the darkness neither of us could to see the other—I learned I was two houses off. “No one will hear you at the gate, the buzzer doesn’t work,” were the faceless man’s parting words. Instead of gapping the space between the dirt road and the bungalow with a scream, I laid down to a soundtrack of jungle sounds—insects awaking, birds settling in—while waiting for Tadeo, my Couchsurfing host, to open the doors to his home.

“Dinner is almost ready,” pulled me from a deep nap. I didn’t even hear the giant wooden doors creak on their hinges.

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The chaotic cool with which Tadeo pulled ingredients from shelves, drained pasta, and seasoned the sauce with pinches of herbs in one long, fluid movement had ended. Food now steamed on the table before us as the muffled rumble of waterfalls arrived from below. Home sweet home. It seemed perfectly normal to be in Brazil speaking Portuguese in a stranger’s mountain lodge, nature all around, without a care in the world.

Daytime view from Tadeo's balcony

Moments before though, as I watched Tadeo navigate the kitchen, I realized just how strange my life had become. It dawned on me that my ability to adapt to everything from remote Bolivian villages to dinners with the highly-educated was the result of my desire for new experiences, and this the result of my obsession to create the circumstances in which to live them. Action is the lighter flame that sets it all off.

Desire plus obsession plus action equals success—this formula never fails; it can be applied to anything. Sometimes I wonder how my life could have been if I’d have applied this simple math toward becoming a writer, a musician, an entrepreneur, a professional art thief—anything more tangible than my increasing collection of invisible experiences.

I should mention too that I haven’t yet grasped the power of obsession. I know because I’m not currently obsessed with anything—other than building an impressive resume of experiences, or perhaps arriving to Argentina by bicycle. Despite the fact that my experiences can be manipulated and bent with nostalgia at any time, their intensity will gradually and inevitably fade, the same way childhood memories seem to morph into the life chapters of a stranger as we become adults. Experiences are great rainy day company but they will not, at least not directly, put food on the table or pay the mortgage.

For me the tangible results of a constant, dedicated, relentless obsession are still unrealized, undiscovered. Luckily, there is no law, mathematical or other, that says it’s ever too late to put my projects, dreams, and ideas—not just this bike trip—into motion.

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There are dangers in obsession too, of course. There is good reason the word is coated in negative connotations. Nobody wants an obsessive partner; tunnel vision pulls in only one direction. Despite obsession’s reputation, below I share two recent examples—of polar opposites—if nothing else to once again show there are shades of duality in everything, no one right or wrong response to the life experience, much less to the intricate and multi-layered questions that lead us to obsess for answers in the first place.

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Tadeo's guitar

Negative Obsession: Tadeo is Brazilian by birth, worldy by choice. After nearly completing an architecture degree to vindicate his father’s failure to do the same, he left school to pursue music, a passion in which his classically-trained mother had instructed him since the age of nine. In his twenties, he busked his way around Europe, strumming his guitar in plazas and London’s poorly-ventilated metro. For a long time the streets were his stage, his bed. This lifestyle culminated in a concert before 50,000 people at London’s Respect Festival. He earned a reputation in the music industry and began to DJ by night, produce music by day, sometimes multi-tasking on several high-profile, stressful projects at once. Sometimes he focused so much on work that he forgot to eat. After twelve years his ‘obsession’ transitioned from a financially- and professionally-rewarding career change to a serious health threat. To paraphrase Tadeo’s own words:

“My lungs practically collapsed, just became like water. My problem had no medical precedence, it was simply the result of too much stress, too much work. When I went to the doctor he said I had two options: I could live a very long, healthy life if I changed my lifestyle and stopped working so much; or I could continue down the same path and die. That very week I called all my contacts, passed my current projects to studio partners, and returned immediately to Brazil. Just like that. I went to live on a beach on Ilha Grande until I felt better. There I walked all day, laid in the sun, and lounged around naked until I felt it was time to leave. Every two days I arranged for people to bring me food. It was great. After three weeks when I awoke one day I realized it was time to go. I was completely cured.”

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Isabel Allende

Positive Obsession: During Paraty’s International Literary Festival (FLIP in Portuguese) I attended a conference in which Chilean author Isabel Allende spoke, joked, and responded with brutal honesty to the mediator’s casual questions. Allende is perhaps the world’s most widely-read Spanish language author, with over 56 million books sold and translated into over 30 languages. The first novel in Spanish I ever read start to finish was Allende’s “Paula,” a tragic memoir about her daughter that never awoke from a coma. Below is a paraphrased story Allende told during the festival:

“I hate cocktail parties. I’m short, which means I’m always below looking up at the others. The whole night all I see is nostrils, the bottom half of people’s lips, and the appetizers that stick there. The spilled wine and food always ends up on my dress. Once I was at one such cocktail party and a man approached me. He asked, “What do you do?” I said I was a writer. “That’s great,” he responded. “What do you write?” I told him I write novels. He went on to say that when he retires he wanted to write a novel too, as if it were a hobby, a casual thing. Fuming, I then asked him what he did for a living. He was a dentist. In complete indignation I said that when I retire I wanted to pull teeth out. He had a complete lack of respect for my profession. You do not just wake one day and write a novel. It takes dedication, you must think in words and stories, you must give yourself completely to the art, you must write everyday, without fail. You must be obsessed with literature.”

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These two examples of obsession both lead to success. Enormous, unique, against-all-odds success. Tadeo is an accomplished musician who lives in a house in which people want to vacation; Allende is a best-selling author who lives her passion daily.

The difference between the two, without taking into consideration thousands of other factors or claiming to have pin-pointed some secret to success, is that the old Tadeo was consumed completely by his passion, his obsession lead him down a linear alley that blocked out the other influences that create a balanced, healthy life; whereas Allende spliced her fiction-based work into the framework of reality in such a way that family, friends, and health were never sacrificed.

What am I on about? Just another MB&S lesson learned: get obsessed about something, shake the world with the intensity of your focus, but do so in moderation, preferably in short bursts between calling your grandmother on non-holidays and hugging loved ones good night, every night.


Responses

  1. Below is another definition of obsession I cut-and-pasted from Tim Ferris’ recent blog post entitled, “From CEOs to Opera Singers – How to Harness the Superstar Effect”

    “In his memoir, Born Standing Up, the comedy superstar Steve Martin provides insight into his rise to prominence. I’ve written in-depth about his method, but perhaps the most important concept is Martin’s redefinition of “diligence.” He notes that diligence was crucial in his rise to comedic fame, but he’s quick to redefine the term away from it’s standard definition of “hard work applied consistently over time.” To Martin, the key to diligence isn’t the work applied to your pursuit, but instead the work you don’t apply to other pursuits. He succeeded in reinventing comedy because he kept his focus on comedy, even when other, more shiny and interesting side projects presented themselves.

    The same concept applies to The Superstar Corollary. When conquering your uncontested niche, it can be tempting to divide your attention. Here is where Martin’s diligence is key. The bonus reward you get for being the best far outweighs any small benefit that a shiny new side project can provide. On the large scale, therefore, maintaining a relentless focus on your conquest maximizes your total overall reward.”


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