Obsession is the Seed of Great Success

The other day a friend of mine shared the following video on twitter. Now before you watch this, I feel I need to warn you because the guy does a fair amount of cursing. I’m really just focusing on the first two minutes and fifty seconds of the video. Feel free to watch more and check out his videos if you like.

Whether you agree with everything he says or not, he makes a very good point; If you want to be great at something, you must become obsessed with it. That’s really a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people. Think about people you know who have lost drastic amounts of weight and kept it off. Now try to think about what percentage of them said they just lost weight casually. I’m going to guess that the number you come up with is somewhere around 0%.

Fact of the matter is, if you want to make a big change in your life, or if you want to become great at something you need to become obsessed with it.

Most people take in a deep breath or  cringe a little on the inside when they see or hear that. They usually think “but I like the person I am now, and I only want to change 1 thing. If I become obsessed with just that one thing out of all the things in my life, it sounds like I’ll need to change who I am basically.” There’s some truth to this statement and so I would say that this fear is not unfounded. In the end I think what you really need to ask yourself is if you would be happy with the change or achievement. For example, I play fighting games, and I do put a significant amount of time into it. But as a result I enjoy competing in tournaments, and have made a lot of great friends and had a lot of great memories traveling to tournaments. I can also say that I’ve also learned some important lessons about motivation and bettering myself along the way.

So let’s look at that statement again and what exactly it means. Let’s talk about what a big change in your life is. This is a little difficult to define because “big” varies from person to person. That in mind, I think that you can accurately define “big” as any change that you told your friends or family and they would say something that equates to “whoa”. Whether it’s losing weight, becoming a skilled at a trade, or learning a new language, it would be people that know you would consider as a large jump.

What about becoming great at something? So this again depends on the person, but I can define it a bit more rigidly. Let’s take a look at this nifty tool I made.

Hierarchy of Skill

I know what you’re thinking and no this is not a prototype image for the international symbol for LGBT rights

This is a visual that can be used to divide people’s level of skill at something into groups. As you move down the triangle you get a smaller population of people, but they become more skilled at some subject. The blue quadrant for the most part represents the populace. These are people who may have some name recognition of what you’re talking about and can do very minor things. For example, you notice that a screw is loose from a table and is making it wobble so you get a screwdriver and tighten it, thus fixing the table. Your ability to repair something worked in this case, but I would by no means call you an expert repairman. This group comprises probably 66% of the populace, or ever 2 out of 3 people. In terms of obsession this is the area where people get away with being able to learn something casually without much effort actually required.

Moving down into the green area, this is for people who have some working knowledge of something. They have some sort of extrinsic knowledge from the subject matter, and have acquired it from someone else or through some form of research. I would say a good example of this is learning to drive a stick-shift car. Most people can drive, but not everyone knows how to drive a stick, yet there are people still who can drift, and then people who are professional race car drivers. Here is where the smallest bit of obsession takes place. You have the option of being able to drive an automatic car, but you have made the conscious decision to learn how to do it manually. Basically what that boils down to is that you are actually doing some work. The important take away here is that you are better than some, but not as good as a few. This piece of the hierarchy is made up of about 24% of people.

The yellow portion of the triangle is an area where things get to be a little tricky. You start to enter the world of diminishing marginal returns. What does that mean? Well it means that you have a mastery of all the basics of a skill, and at this point it the same amount of work you have been doing will see smaller reward or benefit. You start to get into the world of specifics. I think this the first place where the word “obsession” actually starts to materialize. Before you could get away with casually learning a few things or doing a little research or a couple experiences in the subject matter. At this point, you are going to start putting in a lot of time and effort into achieving something. An example of someone in this tier is someone who has just received their a license as a doctor. They have gone through college and medical school as well as completed an internship. The requirement of each of the aforementioned pieces to get a medical license touches on the fact that not only does the person have to have a great deal of extrinsic knowledge, it must be focused in the particular area of the skill, and to go along with that, they also have some actual experience applying the knowledge successfully. The vast amount of focused extrinsic knowledge + experience are usually what land people in this category. This category is usually comprised of about 7% of  people in that skill group.

The final area is reserved for the smallest population but the absolute most skilled in a subject. Piggy-backing off of the last example, you could consider veteran doctors who have been in their field for great lengths of time in this area. People refer to these individuals as experts. They have great deals of knowledge in a subject as well as a countless hours of experience. This area is also where you see the get into specialization of a field. 3% or less make-up this tier of the hierarchy of skill. It is reserved for the ultra elite and knowledgeable of a particular subject. I think here is where the greatest amount of obsession occurs. People in this tier usually say they have devoted their life to the particular subject. From the video before, if you do a little research, Mr. Fletcher would be in this tier as far as heavyweight lifting was concerned.

This turned out to be a whole hell of a lot longer than I originally envisioned, but it’s something I’m very interested in and passionate about. So I guess the only thing now is to think about where you want to fit into on the hierarchy, knowing how much work you want to put into something, and how much you want to devote yourself to the subject. I’m not telling you to go out and ultra-specialize in something. It’s okay to just be good at some things and better at others. If you look at economics, a very basic principle is that specialization in a limited range of tasks is best for everyone. That essentially comes down to the statement “do what you’re good at.” You might be asking “What if I want to do something I’m not good at?” and to that I say “become obsessed with what you’re bad at until you’re good at it”.