Is Obsession a Prerequisite for Success?

In chemistry, there’s the idea of an activation cost. This is the threshold of energy you need to surpass to start a chemical reaction. Dynamite, for example, contains a lot of energy. But unless a spark or lit fuse pays the activation cost it won’t explode.

Life also has activation costs. There are many pursuits that require a minimum threshold of effort to make any improvement at all. Getting over that activation hurdle is often the hardest part.

Activation Costs and Personal Growth

I exercise regularly and follow a healthy diet. The common wisdom would say if I wanted to get stronger, I should just eat more protein and exercise a bit harder.

However, my experience hasn’t been like that. With regular exercise, I’ve quickly reached equilibrium in fitness. Putting in a consistent effort has zero net results on my overall strength. In order to make gains, I need to be temporarily obsessed with improving my fitness.

I’ve exercised regularly for a few years, and my total strength or weight would rarely change, even over 12 months of consistent effort. But I was able to gain about 8 pounds of muscle during four weeks in April with immense focus.

The total dedication and effort over 12 months was a lot more than it was over the few weeks I actually made gains. But because I never exceeded the activation threshold, I didn’t improve.

This tendency is something I’ve noticed in far more than fitness. Life is full of activation costs, and often if you’re stuck struggling at something for years, it’s not because success is impossible, but simply because you’ve never paid the price to get the chain reaction started.

Languages and Obsession

I had a similar experience with activation costs in learning French. I spent nearly five months trying to learn French before I regularly started speaking it with natives. After five months, I was still self-conscious shopping in French. After only a few weeks of obsession, I gave a 15-minute live presentation.

The best language advice I got was from my friend, Benny Lewis, who said the first task is to stop speaking English. I wasn’t able to maintain a strict no-English commitment, but it helped me become aware of how high the activation threshold was for real growth.

What’s the Key Success Factor in Blogging?

A reader asked me once if I could give some tips on how to become a successful blogger. What was the biggest reason for failure?

I thought hard about the question. Obviously being a good writer helps—but I’ve seen plenty of abysmal writers that get better. Having an interesting story helps too—but the story is shaped once you start writing. Every tip I could think of couldn’t be the biggest reason for failure, because I have known people who overcame them.

Then I realized the biggest source of failure is simply lacking obsession about it. I know bloggers who were fantastic writers with great content and great stories, but they weren’t obsessed about building a successful blog. Without it, success is just luck, with it few obstacles are insurmountable.

The Problem with Balance

Life balance is a nice idea. We want many things in life, so balance is a way of getting all of them. In the long-term I’d like to have great friends, great business, great accomplishments and great experiences. What’s the point of becoming successful if you can never enjoy your rewards?

But in the short-term, I think life balance is probably bad advice. Maybe a better idea would be oscillating obsessions. Without that intensity, it’s easy to wobble back and forth, never sparking the chain reaction of growth.

There are some places where the activation cost of success is low, so like a rusting pipe, you can slowly accumulate improvement. But too often the activation cost is high, without intense focus nothing happens, no matter how long you work at it.

My writing ability started out this way. When you’ve never written regularly before, simply showing up will cause improvement. I can easily see a difference between articles I wrote in 2006 and those in 2008.

But soon equilibrium is established. Showing up each time has diminishing returns and the activation cost of improvement is higher. I write less frequently now, in part, because I’d rather invest my effort in writing bursts that allow me to improve, than churning out content.

Cultivating Obsession

The price of obsession is focus. If you want to surpass the activation threshold for an activity, especially if you’ve already drained the easy beginner improvement, you need to make it a priority.

The hardest part about making priorities is that you necessarily have to make something else less important. My burst of fitness improvement was only possible because every other goal—business, school, social life—was downgraded in importance.

Had I been trying to aggressively grow my business and fitness and relationships, I wouldn’t have succeeded. The only time this split focus approach works is when the activation costs are low enough that they can all be paid at once.

The Price of Devotion

I’m in the process of researching for a project that will require devotion for the next year of my life. While discussing the project with a friend, I mentioned that my income would probably go down. He seemed to disagree, that I could “have it all” and both grow my business and succeed in my project.

Life doesn’t work that way. If a pursuit is extraordinary, it tends to have a high activation cost. That cost is obsession, which is possible only if you are not obsessed about everything else.

Telling yourself you should do something is easy. It’s fading all the other desires into the background to focus on one obsession that’s hard. That’s probably why most people never do it.

  • Nick

    I dont know about other things in life, but with fitness, unless you’re doing a varied workout routine (and I mean varied), you hit plateaus fairly regularly. There is a concept in exercise science called “muscle confusion” and it is what it sounds like- consistently varying up your workout routine so that your muscles dont become fully adjusted to one specific workout.
    Scott, I wonder if you have heard of this.
    I think the concept of muscle confusion links somewhat well to the idea in your post- to be able to think of new theories/ideas in whatever your field, requires a lot of time. Those new ideas are also going to be the thing that kick start you out of your slump, out of the plateau you’ve reached.

  • Carol Morgan Cox

    This post really hit home with me! I’ve been struggling with the idea of leading a balanced life (work, fitness, social, volunteering, meditation, etc.) because for so many years I didn’t. Yet, I’ve had this nagging sense that having all this balance is now preventing me from reaching my goals because I don’t have that push (what you’ve perfectly called obsession) to get X done, which will help me accomplish my goals.

    Writing this comment has reminded me of your excellent post “The Art of the Finish”. I think I need to go re-read it!

  • Shrutarshi Basu

    While I agree with the idea that true improvement requires obsession, I don’t think that obsession necessarily needs to be in short bursts (or that short bursts are effective all the time). Taking your writing example for example, if you wanted to go from self-help blogger to fiction novelist you’d need to obsessed for much longer than a few weeks or months. You’d probably have to devote at least a year or two to get to even passable quality (depending on how good you are at fiction now). And I doubt you’d be able to devote more than a few hours a (6-8) day to writing without burning out. And writing by itself wouldn’t be enough — you’d have to read tremendeously as well which would take a lot of time and energy. Of course, all these claims are unsubstantiated and if you have evidence to the opposite I’d love to hear it.

  • Nicky Spur

    I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve continually spread myself too thinly over multiple area of self improvement and found that you can’t make serious progress in one area of life unless you’re willing to name it as a priority over another. This isn’t necessarily true for everything, but trying to master financial success, health, spirituality, work and social relationships can become quite trying. It might be better to focus on maybe two.

    You might find this NY Times article interesting, on the topic of obsession…: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09

  • Prasanna N

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve been reading you for a couple of weeks. I like the way you address specific problems, instead of just generalizing them. You have a great ability to articulate your thoughts.

    Loved this article too – concise and to the point.

  • omar

    I wasn’t sure where you were going with this but then I realized towards the end
    My knee jerk feeling was to disagree but as I read on I was so in agreement. I think I didn’t want to believe that it was true.

    Most people dont want to believe that:

    You need to be obsessed to be successful or that you can’t do it all. You’ll miss this if you really want that.

    But that reality is that’s the truth.

  • Molasey

    Another brilliant and outstanding article from Scott,
    I am about to start my personal studies with electronics circuit designs. This article came at the right time. It made me realise that I need to become obsessed with it in order to be a star in electronics.

    A 5-star article!!!!

  • Nick

    This reminds me of the book “Off Balance on Purpose”, if you haven’t read it, I recommend it 🙂

  • Laurel Grey

    Thank you thank you thank you. Major AH HA moment, between reading this line Scott “It’s fading all the other desires into the background to focus on one obsession that’s hard.” and then reading the article Nicky Spur sent the link for above. (Thank you Nicky.)
    It never occurred to me that it is actually OK, actually the RIGHT thing to do, to “imbalance” your life, put other things on hold, when I’m excited about something.
    I’ve often worked until I physically can’t lift a finger on home improvement projects like building decks or whatever. I love to create things and make them happen with my own two hands. But since I usually ignore the rest of my life (diet, sleep, social, work), I’ve always assumed this was “bad”. The exhaustion would reinforce that.
    But it occurs to me now that there is a major difference between working like this because I’m being told I have to – as by an abusive boss – and working like this for myself because I want to. Same physical exhaustion, yes, but entirely different experiences. One I feel expanded, the other diminished. I think the results speak for themselves too.
    I have a young client who could be described as “hypomanic”; I’ve often coached (nagged) him on the need for balance in his life, and to take better care of himself. Now I understand he’s absolutely doing the right thing for himself and his business. And I’ll do whatever I can to support that “craziness”.
    As I will do to support my occasional creative projects. Right now I’m riding a huge wave of passion FINALLY launching my business into the social media realm, and have been worrying about how distracted I am from actually doing my REAL job – which is to sell. So now I’m not going to worry about this. If I focus and stop trying to balance so much, I can see that I’ll get this framework set up much faster, and then can get back to sales, but with many more opportunities due to having established this framework. In the end I’ll probably make up for the time away from my “real” work anyway.
    Ironically, I’d call that balance. As in “it all balances out in the end.” But I’m having a heck of a lot more fun in the process.
    Which is kinda the whole point of living…at least living well.

  • Scott Young

    Omar,

    I wouldn’t say you have to make long-term tradeoffs. Most people aren’t consistently growing their entire life in any field, if you could maximize the total time of improvement, you could probably achieve success in most broad areas of your life, even if not all at the same time.

    Nicky,

    I tried to make my generalization more nuanced in the article by bringing up the concept of activation costs. Indeed, some of the time the activation costs are low enough that you don’t need obsessive focus to succeed. But there are plenty of situations where that isn’t true.

    Shrutarshi,

    I’m not saying success can be achieved in a short burst. I worked on my business for 7 years before I was able to generate a good income. But I think alternating obsessions is a way to improve several things, in the long-term.

    I would focus on my business obsessively for several months, then take a break to focus on my health or relationships. Not all of the progress backslided in that time, so I could restart the obsession again soon.

    -Scott

  • Jose

    Great article Scott!!

    I have some priorities, and it is a good idea to keep working on those but at different levels.

    Kaizen and obsession are not opposites, I think one complement each other.

    thanks for the article,

    Jose

  • Wendy Irene

    Good luck with researching for a project! I know anything is possible with you.

  • Ken Wert

    Well-said, Scott!

    What complicates the focus-obsession requirement to do new and difficult things are things or people in life you can’t fade into the background without huge costs. A neglected spouse or children, for example, can be hurt by such single-minded focus. SOME balance might be necessary even if your over-all point is dead-on.

    And while some spouses are of the emotional timbre that would allow them to step up to the plate and compensate some for your obsession elsewhere, not all are so emotionally independent and familial happiness can be a huge price to pay for the obsessive dedication.

    That’s why costs have to be evaluated clearly and communication with family members about those costs be made exlicite before jumping into an such an obsession.

    Awesome post, Scott. Keep up the impressive work.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Wendy!

    Ken,

    I think there’s a distinction between growth and maintenance. When I aggressively worked on my fitness, my business and relationships didn’t decline–they just weren’t a focus for my improving efforts.

    So fading other commitments to the background doesn’t always mean abandoning them, it just means you’ll be simply showing up, rather than really doing your best work.

    -Scott

  • JenP

    Friends have been telling me for ages that I don’t achieve my full potential because I am not single-minded enough. At any one time, I have fingers in lots of pies and lots of little projects on the go. And yes, some of them never get finished.

    I have tried being single minded – obsessed if you like – but it doesn’t work for me. I would probably achieve more but I’m not sure that achievement would make me happier.

    It’s a choice – I accept the fact that my lack of obsession or single-mindedness results in unfinished projects, earning less than I could and some ideas never even getting started. But on the other hand, I’ve had a really varied life – I’ve 3 different careers, 2 books, several TV programmes and lots of travelling – and I’ll have lots of things to look back on in later life!

  • Aadi

    This one I was waiting for! I actually have that in mind, because as an aspiring graduate student, I was planning on being obsessed with being good at my technical field, and once I join the workforce, being obsessed with the skills (managerial) that will allow me to progress up in my career. Balance is not for growth. It’s for maintenance, when you would like things to stay the way they are. With little rivulets of effort going to a lot of different things, you’re not going to grow any of your fields quickly. With one big distributary (and aimed in the right direction, meaning deliberate practice) you will definitely see drastic improvements.
    Nice one, Scott.

  • Cris

    I don’t think it’s just obsession that is the issue (or lack thereof). I think it’s comfort zone. We tend to increase focus when we really have a go at something we are afraid of. So, with your writing, for example … in the beginning you were growing past an existing comfort zone and then you mastered writing at that level (or at least because passably decent at it). After that, you were comfortable, growth comes when we find the next comfort zone that needs to be pushed.

    I have been stuck in a space of stagnation in many areas of my life as they all changed at once when I left my marriage of 18 years and became a single mom. I don’t have the luxury of single focus: I have to prioritize self care (fitness, nutrition, health) and wow out my income/career and be a really present parent for my daughter all at the same time AND, still find time to have a go at love relationships unless I want to be out to pasture before I find love again.

    So, I DO agree that there is a point of ignition that pushes us over the edge and having the luxury to indulge that is a gift. But there still has to be a measure of straight up perseverance b/c those of us with kids don’t have the luxury to go balls to the wall in one area of our lives. Our kids are counting on us to conquer the universe AND show up for focused attention after school.

    I hear your point though. It’s a good one. I am not obsessed with anything at the moment … in that charming “it’s my passion!!” kind of way. The last year has been about survival and just keeping my world afloat. Now, I have to figure out what gets the focus of my attention now as I move ahead in my new world. I’m willing to go all in in short bursts to nudge a few things into motion, but I am not willing to resign myself to giving all I have to only one thing at a time. I might be wrong … and/or it might take me longer to get where I’m going… but my daughter is watching me, so while I agree that “balance” is bullshit, I do at least hope to demonstrate some stealth acrobatics as I juggle my way to my personal AWESOME.

    (Note: this is my first time on your blog. Barry Kirsch of http://www.picture-peace.org sent me your way. Great posts. I’ll definitely be back to read more).

  • Cameron Page Langford

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been trying to reconcile the ideas on most productivity blogs about consistent, regular application of time and effort with the reality I’ve experienced: that there’s only so much that “regular” anything can do. I’m a blogger for young writers, and your advice about writing particularly resonates: Writing, at least in my experience, often improves the most in short, intense bursts of time (camps, conferences, etc).

  • Diana

    Hey Scott, I had tried to be obsessed about my goal, and during that period I was absolutely miserable. I felt lonely and tired, and even if I was supposed to “have fun,” I always had to remind myself to go around with a chip on my shoulder. When I just let go, I am much happier. If this supposed to happen and if so, is this a reasonable price to pay for a goal?

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