Because artists tend to have fertile imaginations, lots of brainpower, and also plenty of anxieties and challenges, they are prone to unproductive obsessions where their mind gets stuck thinking repetitively about worrisome things. However, this same penchant for gripping onto a thought can serve artists once they learn how to move their mind away from unproductive obsessions and toward productive ones, like an obsession with their current suite of paintings.
It is one thing to obsess about whether you’re talented enough to paint and another thing to obsess about your current painting. The first sort of obsession steals neurons and prevents you from painting and the second obsession gets your paintings done. It is this second sort of obsession—productive obsessions—that you actually want.
Anxiety causes us to unproductively obsess. By contrast, a productive obsession is our brain really working hard on something. Our brain would love to be more focused, engaged, and passionate in our service but we’ve never been taught how to marshal all those billions of neurons. Our brain isn’t that interested in the dates of battles or in conjugating verbs—in the kind of work asked of it in school. It would like to dream large and really bite into what interests it.
Therefore, we need to train our brain to function at its best. We do that by managing our anxiety (top tips for doing that follow) and creating and nurturing productive obsessions. When you learn how to create and nurture productive obsessions, you find life more interesting, you get more creative work done, and you feel more alive—because your brain is operating in a gear that it loves.
Unproductive obsessions are fueled by anxiety and distorted thinking. Nobody wants or deserves those kinds of obsessions, obsessions with things like not catching a fatal disease or not burning down your house because you forgot to turn a stovetop burner off. Those obsessions grab billions of our neurons, prevent us from thinking straight, and make us miserable.
Productive obsessions, on the other hand, also grab billions of our neurons—but in the service of thoughts that we do want. They aren’t fueled by anxiety but by our conscious decisions about where we want to apply our brain’s power. Because people are generally anxious, most obsessions are of the unproductive sort. But when you decide to take charge of what you want to think about, when you get a grip on your mind, and when you pursue trains of thought that actually serve you, you begin to create productive obsessions and return your brain’s power to your own control.
Why are we so resistant to obsessing productively? Why do we have so much trouble getting passionate and obsessed in the service of our own good thoughts? The reason is analogous to the following: our body would love exercise but that doesn’t mean that we get up and exercise. We may dream of painting but that doesn’t mean that we head straight to the studio. Human beings are surprisingly resistant to doing the things that they really want and need to do.
The same is true of productive obsessions. Most people experience thinking as hard, nerve-wracking work and have to learn the habit of focusing their brain on a subject of their own choosing. At first they’re resistant and keep letting their brain dart around from idea to idea and project to project. But once they begin to see the rewards—that life is more interesting, that they feel engaged, that boredom has been replaced by passion, and that real work gets completed—they begin to look forward to devoting themselves to their own productive thoughts.
Your goal in creating productive obsessions isn’t to rev yourself up into a “clinical mania,” forget to pay the rent, cavalierly ignore your loved ones, or drive other good thoughts out of your brain. Productive obsessions are one of the ways that we make meaning but we don’t put them on a higher pedestal than that, we don’t give up everything in their favor, and we don’t allow them to lead us around by the neurons. The time will come every day when a productive obsession must be shut down and it is your job to let the steam escape and ramp the obsession down.
What’s important in this regard is that you have a real life to turn to, because if your everyday life isn’t working for you, you’ll be inclined to keep percolating away with your obsession. You want to carefully monitor your productive obsessions and keep an eye peeled for warning signs that you’re going overboard, warning signs like your life falling apart around you or your obsessions controlling you and not the other way around. You have the job of keeping an eye on the process. Remember that your productive obsessions are there to serve you and not to rule you!
If productive obsessions are so important, why don’t we hear more about them? The main reason is that the word ‘obsession’ got defined in therapeutic practice a century ago as an unwanted, intrusive thought, so in the clinical world there’s been no way to talk about productive or positive obsessions because all obsessions have been defined as negative. But artists have known for thousands of years that there are such things as productive obsessions.
A productive obsession is simply our attempt to make meaning by using our brainpower. We can also make meaning in lots of other ways, through relationships, activism, service, and so on, but productively obsessing creative products into existence is one of our prime ways to make meaning. Obsess about your art—you know that you want to! Of course, if your anxieties are winning the battle then you’ll be plagued by unproductive obsessions, leaving little room for productive ones. So, let’s look at some tactics for managing that anxious nature of yours.
More next week!