Scientific obsessions lead to vaccines, artistic obsessions lead to symphonies, humanitarian obsessions lead to freedom and justice. Productive obsessions are our lifeblood, both for the individual and for all of humanity. We should not fear them simply because they put us under unwonted pressure, give a compulsive edge to our behaviors, or in other ways discomfort us and threaten us. Rather, we should learn how to encourage them and manage them.
See for yourself. A productive obsession is nothing else but a passionately-held idea that serves your meaning-making efforts. See if the upside of making personal meaning by productively obsessing doesn’t outweigh the downside of pressuring yourself. Expect to feel challenged; also expect to feel rewarded. I want you to learn firsthand what productively obsessing feels like, what can be accomplished, and what benefits this active meaning making provides.
An observer might doubt that your obsession with, say, adding more lights to your Christmas display as your children went hungry or finding another bird to sketch while your mate pined away for you really amounted to a productive obsession. While it is up to you to judge and not up to an observer, I hope that you will bring your conscience to the table, look at the consequences and ramifications of the obsessions you choose, and make sure that they are really productive ones. Analyze your own obsessions before giving yourself over to them, so as to make sure that they meet your own criteria for goodness and soundness.
It’s interesting to ponder the curious obsessions of our fellow human beings. Take, for instance, the obsession of the Snowflake Man. Housed in the Buffalo Museum of Science is a digitized collection of the snow crystal photography of Wilson Alwyn Bentley. Bentley, born in 1865, grew up in the Vermont countryside where he remained for his entire life, eventually becoming known as the “Snowflake Man” because of his unrelenting quest to freeze-frame snow crystals.
At 15, he was given a microscope and immediately began his life-long love affair with capturing images of snow crystals. Daunted by the process of keeping snowflakes frozen long enough to be able to draw their “exquisite geometrical intricacies” while viewing them through his microscope, at 17 he requested and received his first photography equipment from his parents. At 19, experimenting with conjoining his microscope and bellows camera, he produced the first photomicrograph of a snow crystal. Bentley devoted his life to amassing the world’s best, most complete and accurate collection of snow crystal photomicrographs, many of which survive today.
Bentley wrote in his notebook of 1910, “The experience of the search for new forms, the rare delight of seeing for the first time these exquisite lineaments under a microscope, the practical certainty that never again will one be found just like this one is an experience so rare that once undergone is never forgotten.” Because Bentley fell in love with the beauty of snowflakes and because of his dedication to sharing with the world the beauty he saw, all of us who love nature have benefitted.
Think about your own life. Wouldn’t you love to engage in a productive obsession, maybe for the very first time? What shall it be?
To learn more about the ideas presented in this blog post, please see two of Dr. Maisel’s titles, Redesign Your Mind: The Breakthrough Program for Real Cognitive Change and Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions