I’m on the last few days of winter break right now, after finishing my first quarter at Stanford (and deciding to stay). During break, I’ve done something that I’ve never done before: watch lots and lots of movies. In the past three weeks, I’ve watched The Imitation Game, Big Hero Six, Interstellar, Gone Girl, The Princess Bride, and Into the Woods. I’ve watched more movies in the past three weeks than in the rest of 2014 combined!
Why the sudden change? Previously, I’d never been able to justify spending two hours watching a movie. After all, in that time I could be reading a book or learning a skill or having a great conversation with a friend! The reason I suddenly found myself watching many, many more movies is because of what I decided to obsess over, starting in the last few months of 2014.
In my last piece, I wrote about needing to teach myself how to think. For the past month, this is exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve been completely absorbed in putting together a curriculum for myself (which I’ll post shortly!) and trying to figure out the best way to learn this. In the meantime, I’ve been letting myself get more and more obsessed with how I and the people around me think. (This is all deliciously meta.)
And because I’m learning how to think, and about how others think, it really struck me when one of my friends said, “You know that many people base [parts of] their lives on movies, right?”
Oh God, I remember thinking. If it’s true that people are so influenced by movies, then it’s crucial that I understand what movies are about, and why they’re so influential. And in this case, just hearing or reading about movies hasn’t been enough to allow me to understand the appeal.
So, I’ve been watching lots of movies. And by golly, now I’m hooked. Not only do I have a better understanding of why other people are influenced by movies, I’m finding that I am easily influenced by movies. After all, I aspire to be obsessed with learning how to think, and all good movie characters are exceptionally obsessive.
In The Imitation Game, for example, Alan Turing is obsessed with building his Enigma Machine. In Big Hero Six, Hiro is obsessed with avenging his brother’s death. In Interstellar, Cooper is obsessed with finding a new home for mankind. In Gone Girl, Amy is obsessed with punishing her husband into submission. And so on.
People in movies are all obsessed with things — that’s what makes the movie interesting. More specifically, they are all obsessed with things that are epic or virtuous or aspirational in some way. For me at least, noticing characters I admire in movies reminds me to focus on one thing, and to do that one thing very, very well. To become obsessed with something is the only way to succeed.
That got me thinking. Characters in movies are obviously obsessive, but what about real people? When I thought about this initially, I found myself pointing to a number of my friends who are obsessed, perhaps because they have found their passion — whether in programming, persuasion, or positive impact.
But then, I wondered, what about “regular” people, people who haven’t found their passion yet? Are they obsessed, too? I realized with a start: Hell yes. Among the people I know who are still searching for a passion, many of them are obsessed with doing so. On the other hand, some people are obsessed with the latest work drama, or the latest Korean drama. Others are obsessed with finding a romantic relationship. Still others are obsessed with having fun. A subset of these people are obsessed with getting wasted. And regardless of whether or not I or society endorses what different people are obsessed with, the fact is that everyone is obsessed.
And this makes sense. People can’t think deliberately all the time. When they’re not thinking deliberately, they loop back to a thought pattern — either a way or a topic of thinking that is natural or comforting to them. Their thoughts return to this pattern whenever they have free time.
Most people seem to let their minds wander. They become obsessed with things that society encourages them (with pop culture, for example) to obsess over. They find themselves fixating on petty conflicts between friends or drama in their romantic relationships or one-upping their peers on Instagram. This is the less glamorous side of obsession.
Luckily, we do not have to be stuck in our thought patterns forever. We can deliberately change them, by deciding and training ourselves to become obsessed with something new. I don’t know exactly how this works yet (I suspect that there are certain constraints, e.g. you can only become obsessed with something if it helps achieve many of your goals), but I know that people do it, because I have (2011: Growth Mindset, 2012: Being interesting, 2013: Learning, 2014: Thinking deliberately).
You can train yourself to be obsessed with something, and in fact, you must. If you want to achieve exceptional success in anything, you have to be thinking about it much more than anyone else. Obsessing over something means that you’re thinking about it and making progress on it all the time — when you’re in the shower, when you’re in the car, when you’re trying to have a conversation with a friend…
Everyone is obsessed with something. What will you obsess over in 2015?