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Is Obsessive Genius Your Model for Mastery?

Courtesy of Monica Holli (Creative Commons)
Courtesy of Monica Holli (Creative Commons)

I know you can get fixated on advancing your book, your business, your brand, your art – your whole business artist life. And you might think you’re not “the real deal” in part because of the images of geniuses you see and read about.

I’ve noticed something lately, and I’m not the only one.

Films and pop psychology lit on creativity steep us on models of obsessive geniuses.

Think of the young character in the Oscar-winning film Whiplash, Andrew Neiman. A first-year jazz student at a New York Conservatory, he compromises his relationships and health to chase after his mentor’s approval and to become a jazz “great.”

Think of the character Max Cohen in Darren Aronofksy’s film Pi in which the brilliant number theorist shuts off everything – love, money, religious intrigue – in devotion to his pursuit of truth. 

Think of the portrait of Walter Isaacson’s portrait of  Steve Jobs as the mean-spirited, conniving obsessive genius.

What’s the story? Are these stories your model for mastery?

Justine Musk raised the topic about Jobs and greatness on her Facebook feed a few weeks ago: “Can we put more priority on ‘not’ being a jerk to be great?” Justine’s points is that we often excuse bad behavior because the person is “great.” I’ve seen that mentality in many fields and industries, in small ponds and big. 

The models of mastery that show all-or-nothing obsession are, I think, incomplete, inaccurate, and not useful for most of us business artists. 

In fact, Isaacson’s portrait of Jobs itself is being called into question. Fast Company ran an issue with several articles that offer a different take on “the later” Steve Jobs, including this one by Rick Tetlzeli and Brent Schlender on the “kind, patient, and human” Steve Jobs.

Those portraits of the obsessive genius do, though, make for good story if we can distinguish the story & myth from what we need.

What we hunger for

What we hunger after, what we find so captivating, I think, in these stories and images of obsessive geniuses is the promise of flow – that obsessive creative or scientific state that brings out the best in us.

The color orange or the texture of birch bark unfolds into design or breath-taking sculptures.

A haunting feeling forms into a story or book or film.

A burning question or social problem emerges into a business venture or radically new business model.

The obsession has promise. They are in part what advance our cultures of art-making, solution-making, life-making.

Some people must fight for that obsession. They fight with their doubt, partners, bosses, inner bosses, and circumstances to give themselves permission to shape the time, life, and focus for such a self-possessed obsession.

But must our risking excellence come at the cost of our humanity?

Must mastering the violin come at the expense of mastering a meaningful life? 

Can we intentionally risk excellence in our business artist endeavors and shape a meaningful life that is not “balanced” (a phony metaphor) but is, well, different than what some of us have been steeped on?

Breaking down art & life mastery

When I was 21, I studied contemporary art at the American School in Paris. For our final project, we had to come up with something that would argue or illustrate what art might look like 20 years forward. I wrote a paper in which I argued that the future of art would draw from the likes of John Cage and Yves Klein, artists who challenged the distinctions between art and life. Exhibits would illustrate as much about the artist’s good life as much as about what the artist created. The artist’s life created would be part and parcel of the body of work.

Cage and other artists, entrepreneurs, scholars, and writers I admire allow for obsession. They must. But they also possess certain qualities that I intuit are traits of masters not fully disclosed or studied yet (My prediction is that within another 5 years we will have very different models for mastery coming out of the fields of psychology, neuropsychology, and the arts).

What are those traits?

Self-awareness, self-monitoring, self-regulation. 

Meta-cognition – awareness of thoughts and feelings + the capacity to adjust and re-direct attention, thoughts, and feelings.

Emotional intelligence. Social intelligence. 

I think of violin master Joshua Bell. At 12 years old, his parents hired the best violin mentor available to train their boy. The mentor agreed only if he knew the boy were well-rounded and not singularly fixated. When he saw the boy playing video games and pursuing other “boy” interests, the mentor agreed. Joshua is stunning to watch and listen to. He is his violin and the music. But he is also affable, down-to-earth, and, according to many, “modest” in his talents.

And there’s this that I admire in exemplars of mastery and meaning: the capacity to shape a day artfully.

“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful,” Thoreau reminds us, “but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

That passage turned my dirty college apartment upside down when I read it 30 years ago. It still wakes me up. To master a day may seem modest but it might be the model that truly provokes the best you to rise each morning.

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