Why Discovering Your Obsession Can Lead to Your Greatness
Watson and Crick.
Editor's note: This is a guest post from Ruby of the Ruby's Life blog.
In 1999, I was stocking frozen food at a San Francisco Health Food Store and chatting with my friend Dan Moore, a painter and bicycle messenger (and now square dance enthusiast!). I was bemoaning my lack of success with writing and dance. There in the freezer aisle, in our padded gloves and box knives he gave me a little lecture.
"If you want to be good at something, you have to to be obsessive. You have to do the thing all the time, and when you're not doing it, you have to be thinking about doing it. Why do you think business people who make millions are so good at it? They're always doing business. Even when they're not working, they're thinking about better ways to do business. Same with the greatest writers and painters. They obsess all the time. Ruby, if you want to be good at writing, you need to be obsessive about it."
In 2005, I picked up a copy of "The Best American Science and Nature Writing" and read an article about James Dewey Watson*, (you know, the Watson of Watson and Crick, the one who discovered the structure of DNA?) that harked back to Dan's words and cemented what he said.
To paraphrase a little, Watson, at the ripe old age of 74 (this is in 2004) gives a couple of speeches a month, usually for the sum off $25,000. Sharing a lecture agent with Bill Clinton means he can be as preferential as he wants in his engagements. What I love the most is the unapologetic and balls-out title of his speech:
"Why I Deserved to Discover the Structure of DNA"
He gives five reasons, or criteria, which I think could be anyone's criteria for greatness:
- Go for broke- If you are going to do important science, do it.
- Have a way to get the answer – If you haven't a clue, you're going to waste time.
- Be obsessive – He not only knew DNA was important, but it was all he could think about night and day. "Did you see Jeff Goldblum play me in the BBC film? Crick didn't get cast right; he didn't come across in any way as obsessive, whereas I did. It was DNA or nothing for me."
- Be part of a team – Working with Crick, he had a partner to bounce ideas off and a pal to support him.
- Talk to your opponents – A lot of scientists are afraid to share their ideas. But by cooperating with Maurice Wilkins, a scientist at a rival lab in London, Watson and Crick learned of experimental evidence that enabled them to clinch their discovery. The person who actually took the pioneering photograph, Rosalind Franklin, never shared her research, and died before the 1062 Nobel Prize was awarded to the three men. "Generally it pays to talk," says Watson. Oh… and, another rule:
- Never be the brightest person on the room; then you can't learn anything.
Let that sink in for a minute…
Did you get all that? If not, go back and read it again and then go do something great.
Seriously. No truer words were spoken.
But as I re-read Watson's advice, I think about my goals and obsessions. As of late, particularly in our current political/ecological/financial/intellectual climate, I wonder if the thing that has gripped me the most consistently for the last seven years (Blues and Swing Dance) is really the most important thing to focus my time and energy on. It's certainly the thing that I obsess about the most.
But when I really think about it, I also feel a sense of re-assurance about my choices. In 1999, I knew I really liked dance and performance, but I didn't know what I was going to do with it. It's 2008 and I'm contemplating how to schedule in another teaching tour in the UK. Yesterday, a student wrote to thank my partner and I for our instruction last time we were there. They just won the UK Blues Championships and are convinced that they wouldn't have gotten there without us.
I guess my point is… if something keeps coming back to you, even if you think you're doing what you "should do," pay attention to your obsessions. They just might make a difference.
*Jennet Conant, "The New Celebrity", (from Seed Magazine) The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, pp. 38-44
Ruby is a writer, dancer, bodyworker, and indie-rock/blues lover. Read more from her at her blog, Ruby's Life.