In a recent interview on his blog Specific Gravity, Jeff Schechtman fleshes out Joshua Kendall’s assertion from his new book, America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy that Built a Nation, that a type of obsessive madness has driven people who have found the highest levels of success.
Drawing on the stories of such disparate figures as Steve Jobs, Estee Lauder, Ted Williams, and Charles Lindbergh, Kendall surmises that a type of obsessiveness which is borne of early childhood pain and isolation gives these people a kind of single-minded madness that allows them to succeed in almost superhuman ways. In his words, “pain causes obsessions which are a kind of fuel that takes [these great people] over the top.”
He traces shared characteristics, from passions for lists and quantification to fraught personal and sex lives, which seem endemic in so many of the most visible super-achievers.
But, he is careful to warn, this is not necessarily something to envy or emulate. Many of these people are unhappy even in light of their fantastic success. He is also careful to warn that dark obsessions and painful childhood confusion aren’t a necessary condition for success. If you had a happy childhood, don’t fret.
Nonetheless, as the interview and the book demonstrate, to understand the history of the heights of power and achievement, we might have to concede the to be great, you often have to be a little bit mad. Part of the takeaway is that, just as we should strive for the kind of drive which allows these people to be great, we should stagger our admiration with a healthy dose of pity.
Listen to the interview below: