A while back I read a blog written by Ben Stein, Physics Meetings…The Truth about What Happens When Physicists Meet. He talked about obsessive-compulsive behavior and how it related to greatness.
The idea crossed his mind after reading the book Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie that obsession was an essential quality for achieving greatness. He noted the story of two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie was about great triumph over adversity, but it was also an account of how loneliness, depression, and isolation (even from her children) was the price she paid for her greatness. He went on to mention he didn’t know any of the Nobel Prize winners personally and had no idea what they had or had not sacrificed to become leaders and contributors, and although he had great admiration for their accomplishments, he was curious to know if their greatness and the greatness others who excel in their respective fields was possible without obsession.
A Little About My Background
I believe I can cast some light on the aforementioned question at least from an athletic standpoint. First of all, though, let me digress momentarily in order to defend my position. Please don’t take this wrong. I am merely trying to establish my credibility for answering this rather intriguing question.
Now, I will tell you straight out I am really a blessed human being because I have had the opportunity to travel to so many places in the world, and through my travels, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most successful people in the world. At times, I was surrounded by some of the best minds and most accomplished people who ever walked the face of the earth. They were heads of major corporations; award-winning writers, editors and scholars; presidents of colleges and universities; great artists; highly talented actors, dancers and designers; and some of the most accomplished athletes in the world—people who would literally dwarf me with their brilliance and accomplishments.
Best yet, I have had extensive life experiences that gave me the opportunity to not only meet these people but to develop relationships with some of these individuals. For instance, I worked as a sports psychologist with professional and amateur athletes throughout the world since the time I was seventeen years old. I also worked with numerous sports teams, including the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Cincinnati Reds. In addition, I was head of the research center for the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy, an institution designed to create superhuman athletes. I was also an executive with Micro-Diagnostics Corporation, a conglomerate designed to produce scientific instruments, and as an athlete, I had the opportunity to train at just about every Olympic training center in the world for extended periods of time.
With that being said, I would like to attempt to answer Stein’s question.
Is Greatness Possible Without Obsession?
This is not going to be pretty. If there is a common thread that tends to run through world-class athletes and elite individuals, especially the “stars of stars” and the greatest of the great, it is extreme obsession with their field of endeavor. In fact, obsession might be the most critical variable required to achieve greatness. Even the most gifted individuals who achieve greatness, guys like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Eddie Coan, and Bill Gates, tend to exhibit passionate career behavior that hinges on total fixation.
Not surprising, at least to me, is the fact that the majority of psychologists believe that for most people to reach an elite level in any field of endeavor some degree of obsession is required. In fact, in sports, one of the most competitive fields of endeavor, obsession, total obsession, may be the most important aspect of achieving world =-class status.
To be perfectly honest, I have never met a great athlete or an elite entrepreneur for that matter, who wasn’t somewhat obsessive. The really great athletes, the one-percenters, are generally totally obsessed with what they are doing. They place a higher priority on their sport than they do on work, family, interpersonal relationships, and even on their own health. In actual fact, many athletes seem quite willing to sacrifice the very essence of life to achieve athletic greatness. Nothing matters—just the game.
Now, I am sure there are elite athletes who have achieved greatness without total obsession, but I would venture to say they are the extreme exception rather than the rule. The majority of individuals who have reached an elite level in sports and many times in life were obsessively obsessed with what they were trying to achieve, almost to the point of being psychotic.
Greatness and Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
As a reference point, the American athlete responds to competition like no other athlete in the world. It’s been estimated the typical athlete in America trains an average of twelve hours a week. Now that’s the average athlete. Most elite athletes train at least three times as much. Not only that, but they will train if they are in pain, if they are sick, and even if they are injured. They will do anything to improve their performance—drugs, cheating, lying. It doesn’t seem to matter as long as they improve.
Believe me, there are numerous elite athletes who practically surrender their entire lives to that single purpose. For many elite athletes, their devotion to sports actually goes beyond the border of obsession. As indicated, there is considerable research in sports psychology that demonstrates that elite athletes often develop obsessive-compulsive behavior in an attempt to achieve their goals.
I know that may sound crazy to you, but I’m afraid my observation is pretty accurate. Let’s be honest, athletes are at best different, especially the great ones. I mean, think about it. How many people do you know would push their bodies to the brink of exhaustion each and every day and abstain from social and physical pleasures such as sex, alcohol, and social communication? How many people do you know who would sacrifice job opportunities, financial security, home, marriage, and even children? Who would perhaps ingest large quantities of illegal and dangerous drugs, ignore and endure pain from serious injuries, work long hours perfecting a simple skill that is ridiculously repetitious, and gain or lose a couple of hundred pounds each year? For that matter, how many people do you know that would spend forty to sixty-hours a week working on their hobby? Yet, all this is done for a chance to participate in an event that might, if the athlete is good enough, bring him a few moments of glory.
The Stories of Bobby Fischer and Larry Bird
Bobby Fischer, the greatest chess player of all time, is a prime example of the type of guy I’m talking about. For all of his greatness, Bobby Fischer studied harder than any player who ever lived. He woke up every morning thinking about chess, he went to bed thinking about it, he dreamed about it. Why? Because it wasn’t enough to be great, Fisher had to be the greatest—the best chess player who ever walked the face of the earth.
He was totally committed to that one dream. Totally committed to excellence. Totally committed to greatness. It wasn’t enough for him to just play chess at a “Masters” level. Fisher wanted to win, he had to win, he had to be a champion. He was intrinsically driven to be the very best of the best—totally committed to excellence, totally obsessed with greatness.
Michael Jordan was another guy cut from this same fabric. Without question, he is the greatest player on earth, or anywhere else for that matter, but no one trained harder than Jordan. No one! Jordan couldn’t stand mediocrity. He was totally driven to excel, and he would do whatever it took to obtain that goal. He never gave less than his very best. That’s why he was the best. That’s why he is JORDAN.
Perhaps Larry Bird summed it up best in his autobiography when he was talking about his obsession to win. He said:
As a kid, I always thought I was behind and I needed that extra hour of work to catch up. Jim Jones once told me, “No matter how many shots you take, somewhere there’s a kid out there taking one more. If you dribble a million times a day, someone is dribbling a million and one.” Whenever I’d get ready to call it a day, I’d think, “No. Somebody else is still working. Somebody-somewhere is playing that extra ten or fifteen minutes and he’s going to beat me someday.” I’d practice some more and then I’d think, “Maybe that guy is practicing his free throws now.” So I’d go to the line and practice my free throws and that would take another hour. I don’t know if I worked more than anybody else did, but I sure worked enough. I still wonder if somebody-somewhere-was practicing more than me. Maybe Michael Jordan.
Finding Balance—or Finding Greatness?
So, back to the subject of Stein’s question: is greatness possible without obsession? In general—no. So, the question now becomes: do you really want to achieve greatest at such a high price? And why? And exactly for whom? Even if you are willing to dedicate your entire life to a single purpose, there is no guarantee you will achieve greatness. Many athletes, businessman, entertainers, and entrepreneurs have found no treasure at the end of their rainbow.
Still, it goes without saying that we live longer, healthier, and better lives if we have passion in our life. A lifetime spent pursuing our passion, even if the outcome is fruitless, is better than a lifetime spent without a reason for living. True greatness in any field of endeavor requires obsession, dedication, and sacrifice. Still, in order to win, you have to play the game, and if it is a game you want to win, obsession is a powerful weapon in your arsenal. However, obsession might best be treated as a powerful but addictive drug that can lead you to greatness but at the same time lead the way to ruin and destruction.