We‘ve heard the stories.
Steve Jobs shouting at his team at three in the morning about a project delay.
Bill Gates sleeping on the floor of his office, rather than take the trouble of going home, during the early days of Microsoft.
Michelangelo working for 18 hours a day while painting the Last Judgement on the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
And the stories go on.
We might call them OCD, workaholics, obsessed, or even crazy. But here’s one thing that’s hard to deny – success and obsession seem inseparable.
Is it possible to achieve massive success without being obsessed?
No, and I’ll show you why in a minute.
But first, let’s clear something up.
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What Nearly Everyone Gets Wrong
Obsession and workaholism – most people think they are the same thing.
They are completely missing the point.
When we speak of obsession, we’re talking about something positive – the drive to build something meaningful. The pursuit of a purpose that’s bigger than yourself.
It might be the passion to build technology that puts humankind on other planets, like Elon Musk.
It could be the mental power and positive enthusiasm to overcome any obstacle and dominate in one of the toughest career paths possible, like LeBron James.
Or maybe it’s the compassion to dedicate yourself to serving destitute people, such as Mother Teresa.
Obsession isn’t about working long hours just because you want to be a self-made billionaire! We are talking about putting your soul into a mission you believe in. This goes way beyond workaholism.
Why is Obsession Critical for Success?
Not because it helps you work longer.
Yes, people who are obsessed certainly work unusually long hours – entrepreneurs, startup folks, artists, doctors, and so on. We keep talking about those crazy hours because time spent is a visible key success factor.
You’ve heard about the 10,000-hour rule, right? The study that says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop mastery over a certain domain? Bill Gates became of one the pioneers in software because he already had more than 10,000 hours of coding practice under his belt even before starting college.
Obsession helps you master a subject, skill, or industry like the back of your hand.
But longer hours of practice or of execution, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s look at the two real reasons why obsession is paramount for success.
See the unseen
SpaceX is one of the hottest companies of all time.
Strangely, it was founded by a man who had zero knowledge of rockets – Elon Musk, who has earlier co-founded PayPal and Tesla.
Though Musk knew nothing about rockets back in those days, he was obsessed with the concept of space travel and pioneering the mission of colonizing other planets. In 2002, he teamed up with serial entrepreneur John Garvey who was building experimental rockets in his garage.
Musk was also able to quickly learn rocket science, because he’s an expert-generalist (a term coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Company). Essentially, it means that he is able to study different fields, understand the most important principles and successfully apply them. He’s had the habit of reading two books a day from this teens, so picking up rocket science would hardly have challenged him!
Over the past 15 years, SpaceX has been pulled off several extraordinary achievements, one of them being the ability to land and relaunch rockets (the government has been trying to do that for decades!)
The reason Elon Musk was able to pull off the impossible is because he saw possibilities and implications that few others did. And he didn’t just have a vision – he believed in it and decided to act on it.
Obsession makes you continue to look for solutions to problems when everyone else has given up. Elon Musk had already made his fortune, and he could have just rested on his laurels. Except, that he couldn’t have. He couldn’t help it, remember? He’s obsessed.
As a result of SpaceX’s innovations, we are decades closer to colonizing another planet.
But obsession doesn’t just stop at revealing innovative solutions. Here’s the biggest gift that it gives you.
Go where no man has gone before
Andrew Carnegie, the sixth richest person of all time according to Time Magazine, built a fortune of $372 billion (in today’s terms), by practically creating the steel industry in the late 1800s.
Carnegie developed a process for cheaply mass-producing steel, transforming both America and the world. It revolutionized construction of buildings, bridges, shipping, etc. There was an explosion of economic activity which became one of the founding pillars of America as an economic superpower.
But here’s a bit of the story that I left out – Carnegie almost failed. He nearly bankrupted himself in trying to develop the process of commercial steel production. Even with unpaid debtors knocking on his door, he stayed his course. If you try to analyze his resolve logically, it seems nothing short of madness. Anybody else would have cut their losses and exited the venture.
Obsession gives you the grit to push on when the odds are completely stacked against you.
I’m talking about the kind of grit that Galileo showed, when the Spanish Inquisition was destroying him for proclaiming heliocentrism – that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa.
It’s the perseverance that Thomas Edison demonstrated when he went through 10,000 iterations before finally inventing the commercially viable light bulb.
And it’s a truth that every highly successful entrepreneur knows. Because nearly every successful company you see was founded by someone who had earlier failed as an entrepreneur. But they learned from their mistakes, returned to the game, and hit it out of the park.
And what if you are not obsessed?
Let’s face it.
Success doesn’t come easily. You don’t just dedicate your time, you dedicate your life.
You will risk your money, your reputation, your relationships, and even your health. How in the world will you bring yourself to do all this if you are not obsessed?
In life, there are always easier choices. A cozy job, a less risky business venture, and no long-term goals.
But be honest with yourself…
If You’re Passionate, You Don’t Have a Choice
If you’ve felt the calling – you don’t have a choice.
You will be compelled to pursue your mission. You won’t even think of concepts like work-life balance. You won’t care because you will feel fulfilled in a way that no one will understand.
You won’t just be happy. You will feel a deep sense of contentment that can only come from living a mission.
People around you won’t understand the choices you are making in life, your definition of happiness or what the big deal about your mission is. Don’t expect them to.
As Steve Jobs said, “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. … They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Wes is ClickUp’s fearless Chief Operating Officer. He also has a degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. When he isn’t helping the worlds most productive teams get more done he can be found on the water wakeboarding in Tennessee.
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