It's true: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Yet that's what we do when we spend our weekend -- and neurons -- reliving a workplace squabble, spend a family visit chewing over childhood issues, or spend hours beating ourselves up when someone brings one of our own long-held (but never worked on) ideas to fruition. This kind of obsessing gets us, like a hamster on a wheel, nowhere. But as noted creativity expert Eric Maisel asserts, obsessing productively leads to fulfillment rather than frustration. A productive obsession, whether an idea for a novel, a business, or a vaccine, is chosen deliberately and pursued with determination. In this provocative, practical guide, Maisel coaches you to use the tendency to obsess to your creative advantage, fulfilling both your promise and your promises to yourself.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than 40 books in the areas of creativity, coaching, mental health, and cultural trends. He is a psychotherapist and creativity coach, and writes for Psychology Today and Professional Artist Magazine and presents workshops internationally.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary I have on my shelf, an obsession is an unhealthy attachment to another person, being, object or idea; a condition in need of a cure. Eric Maisel’s latest book is not about a condition in need of a cure. Instead he writes about the productive obsessions at the heart of all meaning making. These are the big ideas and visions that great people pursue with the kind of devotion that is required to do anything long term and large scale. For artists of all kinds, this book is a powerful reminder that it takes the intensity and pain of an obsession to do anything grand, and that this is something worthwhile – something that gives life meaning and is the best use of our time.
In true Maisel style, the book doesn’t simplify or whitewash the difficulty inherent in making meaning. Maisel is deeply familiar with the existential demons and complexities that confront artists, and is careful to present these and the artist’s obsessive quest in a realistic light. Failure is always possible – that’s part and parcel of why the journey is worthwhile. Creation always involves a leap into the unknown, but not just any unknown, an unknown that we've begun to perceive and are drawn to from some innate, true part of ourselves. The book is open about the relationship between productive obsessions – that is absorption in an idea that becomes a project that becomes some kind of realised achievement which benefits others, and unproductive obsessions which expend mental energy in the form of destructive distraction that involves more dreaming than producing.
Although the book explores a reasonably esoteric topic, the focus is practical, and takes a 'self-help' approach. Every word has is addressed directly at the reader, with instructions that are workable and guided towards action:
"Choose your productive obsession right now. Maybe you know exactly which one to select. Even if you’re positive, give your idea a once-over and make sure it meets your current meaning needs and intensions. Maybe you have several good candidates but aren’t sure which one to choose. Take your best guess, and commit to obsessing for a month. (24)"
The book is divided into 28 short chapters, each of which explores some aspect of the process of turning creative obsessions into productive obsessions – that lead to something concrete – a painting, a novel, a new business. A number of the chapters conclude with an anecdotal example of someone who has achieved something through obsession, while others conclude with affirmations or quotations. Throughout the book are examples from Maisel’s own practice, from his own experience, and from information gained through his productive obsession group. This includes one, two and three week reports which make clear some of the issues that have confronted his team as they struggled to work with obsession, and how they were dealt with. Some of the key demons that confront the productively obsessed are tackled, such as the sheer amount of work that’s required to see an obsession through fruition, emotional conflict, endurance, a lack of self-confidence, fear and risk. There are tips for dealing with each of these. For those who would follow the example set by Maisel and create their own productive obsession group, there are also tips for starting one up.
Above all, this is a book that challenges the creative person to prioritise and obsess about those things that matter most – not to let the small scale distractions that form the basis of most of our lives stop us from achieving our true potential:
"You can halt a brainstorm with a feature. All you have to do is keep looking up or looking away. All you have to do is to take no real interest in your own ideas. All you have to do is secretly doubt that your efforts matter. All you have to do is get in the habit of calling yourself “easily distractible” and buy every available distraction. If you want to make absolutely sure that you will not be able to concentrate, all you have to do is not commit. That will guarantee that the slightest change in barometric pressure will distract you. (87)"
Maisel’s work is all about how to live a meaningful life, through art or some other large creative endeavour. In Brainstorm he addresses the reader as fellow creator, and encourages the most expansive perspective, and the most committed, deepest leap into meaning making. This is no trivial message. It’s at the heart of a purposeful life, and in a world where nearly all of the media messages that are being bombarded at us are focused on the opposite – consume, scan, move fast from one interest to the next, and live life lightly, this is critically, utterly important. This is a book that should be read by everyone who wants to live their life in a way that is vital and leaves some kind of legacy. It’s not about fame and fortune, but rather, about ensuring that this brief span that we have on Earth is one that has value - where we leave some kind of impression. There’s nothing that matters more.
Obsession according to Eric Maisel is the pursuit of some thing or idea to the extent that nothing else in the world matters. This is true, obsession always connotes an unhealthy focus on some thing to the detriment of every one else. Eric thinks there are two sides of obsession, the one described above and another type of obsession that he calls ‘productive obsession’. This is an obsession that can produce healthy positive things or ideas that will benefit mankind, if not mankind, then at least the person obsessing. Productive obsessions can be made to produce positive results in individuals in their work or their vocations or at whatever they obsess on that makes them happy. We should not go around with our head in the gutter and our hands in the mud. We waste far too much time thinking about time or reading our 541st e-mail of the day. At some point in Eric’s logic we seem to have come full circle. Well, it is possible that I went a little too far in my description of productive obsession. But then I can safely say that Eric Maisel goes too far in his description of positive obsession. In a nutshell, that is the purpose of Eric’s book- to tell us what productive obsession is and how one cannot produce something of positive value by just thinking about it. You must put your whole mind into the thing you are making (let’s use making from here own and not have to put ideas in as it makes a mess of my sentences and I lose my thoughts on what I was meaning to say). You will need a drawing of some kind to present to the builder or if you are building it yourself, you will need a patent attorney to file your item with the U.S. Patent office. This fairly represents Chapter One of Eric’s book. In chapter two, he gives us some examples of people who were just a name on a census list until they started positive obsessing about the gadget they created and how it was turned now by many CEO’s before finding one that would chip in some money to build and sell a few and the individual could take it from there and be a great example of positive obsession. Several examples are included in Chapter 2. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are more of the same until I finally discovered that Eric Maisel had told his reading public all he knew to say about positive obsession. In the front of his book Eric list’s the titles of about twenty other works of nonfiction that he has written. It may be that Eric has reached that point where positive obsession becomes just plain obsession again. Two stars for getting someone to publish the book.
This book starts out okay and then finishes with a wimper. It spends too much time defending and defining the idea of productive obsessions rather than talking about how to overcome the obstacles and actually do what you need to do. Maisel uses a lot of quotes from people in his groups to add substance to the book. Not a very practical book although Maisel does have some great ideas. I suspect that he got a lot of pushback from his academic peers for this idea and hence this book is a somewhat defensive approach to the topic. I would recommend The War of Art by Pressfield or The Creative Habit by Tharp for people looking to get their big projects moving. Overall this book came highly recommended but was disappointing.
Do not buy this book. There are about 6 pages of it that are worth reading, but the rest of it is simply about the importance of naming something in your life as a "productive obsession." That's the thesis, and the substantiating work is a collection of comments from the author's website users at different stages of their experiment with a productive obsession.
Name your productive obsession. Figure out if an internal fear of failure or rejection or something else is keeping you from pursuing your goal. Try - really try obsessing - for 90 days. Don't neglect your family. Take a break if you need, and maybe then pick it back up.
There. I just did all the hard work for you and saved you $17.
Not all obsessions are negative. Some can actually make a real difference both at a personal level and for those around us. So says the authors of Brainstorm. In fact, having a good obsession may be the key to living a happy, healthy life.
Brainstorm asks us to look at that one thing we obsess about. Not the daily troubles or the problems but finding solutions and creating something worthwhile. Some people call it our life purpose. Others call it a passion. No matter what you call it, really it’s all about putting your focus and effort into making a difference in the world, using your time and resources wisely. Nothing new but perhaps nothing more important.
I love so much about Eric's work. This book raises such great questions about how to risk big ideas, how to take on the hard challenges of creation, how to pony up to bigger ideas. I only wish he had given more insight into how to think deeper and develop ideas - Eric your next book idea!!
I’m not rating because this is the kind of book a reader can either draw a lot of information out of and get excited about this technique for allowing oneself room to think, or it could lead to confusion and frustration. Let’s say I’m intrigued.