Obsession vs. Discipline

Are you driven by obsession or discipline?

Obsession is primal, unintentional, and emotional. You do something because you can’t do anything else. Discipline is controlled, grinding, and rational. You do something because you’ve decided to not do anything else.

It’s an interesting lens to inspect working styles with. Depending on where you think you might fall it affects how you should approach work.

Andreas Antonopoulos, who literally wrote the book on Bitcoin, described when he discovered cryptocurrencies:

The realization that “this isn’t money, it’s a decentralized trust network,” started me on a four-month journey to devour every scrap of information about bitcoin I could find. I became obsessed and enthralled, spending 12 or more hours each day glued to a screen, reading, writing, coding, and learning as much as I could. I emerged from this state of fugue, more than 20 pounds lighter from lack of consistent meals, determined to dedicated myself to working on bitcoin.

I know people who become obsessed like this, and I’m sure you do too. It’s the classic story behind all great creations. A moment of inspiration leading to a tireless drive centered on a singular task.

Contrast this with Steven Pressfield’s description of his writing process (in his parlance, turning pro means doing the work you set out to do):

Turning pro is like kicking a drug habit or stopping drinking. It’s a decision, a decision to which we must re-commit every day. Twelve-step programs say “One Day at a Time.” The professional says the same thing. Each day, the professional understands, he will wake up facing the same demons, the same Resistance, the same self-sabotage, the same tendencies to shadow activities and amateurism that he has always faced.

In his case not doing work as a drug habit that has to be kicked. Working is, in a way, staying sober — an act requires a daily re-commitment.

When you’re obsessed you’re forgetting to eat meals due to work. When you’re disciplined you’re suspiciously eyeing the desire to eat as a potential point of relapse towards not working (e.g. this project can wait, my friend just asked if I wanted to go out to lunch).

The great temptation is thinking “I need to become obsessed with something.” Thinking “the reason why I haven’t done anything is because I haven’t been inspired into obsession.” The more important question to ask before asking “how do I get inspired?” is asking if you’re even capable of obsession.

Ask yourself: have you ever truly been obsessed with anything? And I mean anything. Video games, food, people, a hobby, a sport? Have you ever missed meals, lost sleep, or skipped obligations to satisfy some obsession? It doesn’t even have to be now, but at any point in your life.

If not, what makes you think that out of nowhere you’ll find some inspiration that will birth your first-ever obsession? If you’re older than 20 and haven’t been obsessed by anything yet, chances seem slim-to-zero that you’ll find your first obsession at this point.

A suspect a lot of misunderstandings spring from missing this spectrum. This is half of the vaguely-artistic internet shouting “I need to get inspired to create!” vs. the other half yelling “just shut up and put your butt in the chair every day!” I suspect they’re both correct to an extent, but each of those truths will apply to some more than others.

So inspect your own habits. Are you someone who has obsessions? If yes, give yourself some permission to meander, looking for the spark for your next project. Or are you someone with interests but they rarely drive themselves forward? If so, consider experimenting with a more disciplined schedule for working.

As with most things, it comes down to knowing yourself. Because if meaning is predicated on modifying a deep unchangeable part of your personality, then you’ll never find it.


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