Heroes and Patients: Rage vs. Obsession

Across a wide variety of domains, people who have achieved expertise share a common trait. In fact, this one factor might lie at the very epicenter of behavioral control. It’s called ‘the rage to master”—the relentless pursuit of knowledge or skill, in the face of all other distraction.

You can see the results in everything from Steve Curry’s three-point shooting to Meryl Streep’s acting to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s command over the blues guitar. In the latter case, Vaughan’s quest for mastery included supergluing his fingertips so that he could keep playing after he’d bloodied his fingers from practicing the same riff over and over again.

 The flip side of the coin is another, less polite word: obsession. In clinical psychology, obsessions are something that people seek help to overcome. There’s even an official diagnosis for people who struggle with their fixations: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.

If you have OCD, you might feel a nigh uncontrollable urge to wash your hands after any human contact. Perhaps you’re driven to count each and every floor tile as you walk the halls of your workplace. Or maybe you find yourself unable to shake certain alarming repetitive thoughts. People with OCD experience a wide spectrum of reactions from other people, from empathy on one hand, to pity, disdain, and ridicule on the other.

In our society, someone scrubbing their hands after every handshake has a problem, but someone practicing their three-point shooting into the wee hours of the morning is a potential hero. It seems that the value of obsession, that inner drive to direct all of one’s focus to one particular goal, is a currency dictated almost entirely by convention. Is the need to stand behind a line and hurl a small sphere through a metal hoop really any more important than the need to track all 286 hallway floor tiles of your office?

There may be some benefits to picking up on details other people don’t notice. But a much larger chorus of season ticket holders and ESPN viewers would argue that three-point shooting has far greater benefits, and is worth paying money to witness. After all, I can’t think of a single hand washing or tile counting contest that draws anything near the viewership of an NBA playoff game, even during a crummy year.

The rage to master is usually viewed as an out-of-the-ordinary gift from the genetic gods, often lumped in with words like “genius.” Obsessions are seen as out-of-the-ordinary peculiar behaviors, more often lumped in with phrases like “warning sign” and “clinical help.” What’s the real distinction? That depends entirely on how you keep count.

The Three Things Every Leader Needs

What is a leader? The simplest and perhaps most literal definition is “someone with followers.” But the presence of followers alone doesn’t signify that you’re any good at the act of leadership. History is littered with men and women who blithely led others straight into disaster.

Great leaders do three things that set them apart.

First of all, they start with a growth mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. This is far more than a simple positive attitude. Positive thinking alone can lend situations an undeserved—even dangerous—rosy cast, verging into denial. Growth mindset, which holds that improvement is made possible through honest self-assessment and hard work, encourages people to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.

Dave Guy, who plays trumpet alongside The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band on the Tonight Show, is one of the foremost trumpeters alive. Early in his career, he made it his goal to learn how to play in as many different genres as he could—blues, jazz, soul, funk. As a young guy coming chiefly from the hip-hop scene, this meant putting himself in some uncomfortable situations, playing far out of his comfort zone. Yet this growth mindset allowed him to assimilate a vast array of styles, giving him an impressive palette of sounds and catapulting him into the top tier of trumpeting.

Great leaders also follow a strategy. The best-selling novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Irving says in the introduction to his book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, that his habit is to write the last sentence of a new project first. Neuroscientists might call this an example of scaffolding—a problem-solving technique which begins by identifying the goal and then filling in the gaps along the way, always keeping one’s eyes on the prize. (And a growth mindset strategist will be careful to check any plan for familiar flaws, building on their previous lessons learned.)

Of course, even the most brilliant strategy is just so much scrap paper unless it can be put into practice. The third element of great leadership is implementation. Every project requires changing current habits to accommodate the new idea, and that often requires an element of sacrifice. Sometimes this is a minor issue; frequently, it is not. Much like Newton’s Law, which states that a body at rest will tend to stay at rest, humans are designed to conserve energy. This default to stasis means we are far more likely to cling to old habits, even if innovation would make our lives better. A good leader is willing to shepherd a key idea through the entire process, devoting time and resources to ensure that everyone fully understands the new system.

Great leadership is not just about having people behind you; it’s about where you’re headed and how you intend to get there. Something our current presidential candidates might want to keep in mind…