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.