To be the ethical, engaged, creative, successful, and lively human being you intend to be, you need your brain. But it is not enough to possess a perfectly good brain you must also use it.
If you don't use your brain you will find yourself trapped in trivialities, condemned to impulsivity, led around by anxiety, and duller and sadder than you have any need to be. The cliché is true: your mind is a terrible thing to waste.
People waste their brains. They allow themselves to worry about next to nothing, wasting neurons. They allow themselves to grow numb with distractions, wasting neurons. They allow themselves to be ruled by a perpetual to-do list, running from errand to chore to chore to errand, wasting neurons. Because they have not trained themselves to aim their brain in the direction of rich and rewarding ideas, ideas worth the wholesale enlistment of neurons, they stay mired in the mental equivalent of a rat race, spending their neuronal capital on spinning hamster wheels.
Our culture applauds this brain abdication. It needs you to care about the latest movie, the latest gadget, the latest sermon, the latest investment opportunity. Every aspect of our culture has something to sell you and needs to grab your attention. Marketers do not want you to be thinking too strenuously about your budding symphony or your scientific research and miss their sales pitch. What if you didn't answer your phone when it rang? How could they telemarket? What if you didn't check your email every few minutes? Your brainstorms are dollars out of their pockets.
This antipathy to rich thinking occurs at home, at school, among friends, and even with your mate. Parents tell you to clean your room, not to create your own cosmology myths. Teachers tell you to do math this hour and history the next, not to turn your brain over to a magnificent obsession. Friends ask you to shop, not to think; to play cards, not to think; to join them at a hot new restaurant, not to think; to watch a can't-miss television show, not to think. Your wife doesn't say, "Honey, let's spend a few hours thinking!" Your husband doesn't ask, "Dear, what big ideas are you working on?" Indeed, if it could be put to a vote, thinking might well be outlawed. Expect such a prop-osition on your ballot soon.
The good news is that you can jump off this bandwagon and opt for brainstorms. For thousand of years, our wisest philosophers have asserted that the trick to creating an authentic life is taking charge of how you use your brain. It is up to you whether you will dumb yourself down or smarten yourself up. If you opt to smarten yourself up by cultivating rich ideas with weight and worth, you will get to make meaning in ways that few people experience. The person next to you may think that the epitome of brain powering is a sharp game of bridge or a rousing afternoon with a crossword puzzle. You will discover that real brain power is holding a rich idea over time as you productively obsess your novel into existence, build your remarkable business, or aid in the understanding of some profound scientific puzzle.
You learn to opt for brainstorms, for big thinking over time, and by doing so you fulfill your promise and your promises to yourself. An idea for a novel sparks your imagination and, because you let it, it turns into a brainstorm. An idea for an Internet business wakes you up in the middle of the night and, because you let it, it turns into a brainstorm. A scientific problem grips you and, because you let it, it turns into a brainstorm. A brainstorm is the full activation of your neuronal forces, an activation in support of an idea that you intend to cherish and elaborate, so powerful that it amounts to a productive obsession. You work on it in the mind, by thinking, and you work on it in actuality, by actually writing, by actually running for office, by actually launching your business.
Do these brainstorms come with a money-back guarantee? Yes and no. What you are not guaranteed are successful results. You might, for example, chew on a scientific puzzle for a decade and never solve it. Albert Einstein explained, "I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right." Not even that hundredth time is guaranteed you. All that you are guaranteed from a life of brainstorms is the possibility of successes which you never would have achieved if you had avoided thinking and pride from having lived up to your expectations for yourself. And that's everything.
Thinking is destiny. The theologian Tryon Edwards put it this way: "Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in actions; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny." As you think, so you live. If you think about nothing, it would hardly be a surprise if you complained about feeling empty and failed to rise to most occasions. If you keep your thinking as small as possible, you will probably feel and act small. If you demand that your brain produce nothing but conventional thoughts, how can you be anything but conventional? If your idea of flexing your mind is to spin fantasies, play word games, second-guess your choices, or worry endlessly, I can picture your destiny. Can't you? Isn't it crystal clear that how you use your mind determines who you are and how you lead your life?
Live up a storm. A brainstorm. Or rather, a series of brainstorms: one after another, season after season, year after year. When you engage your mind with an idea ripe enough to drip juice, large enough to fill an auditorium, fascinating enough to seduce, gripping enough to hold you enthralled, you scoot boredom out the door, make sense of your days, and live your reasons for being. In a café across town, two students may be merrily debating the meaning of life; you are making your meaning. In a skyscraper across town, two marketers may be plotting how to grab your attention; you are safe and secure, inoculated by virtue of your brainstorm. You are too busy and engrossed to notice even your own misgivings about the universe. You have bitten into something; your own chewing drowns out the world's chatter.
It is a platitude that the average brain is not used well or often enough. This truth tends to elicit a smile, a nod, and a wink. We seem happy to collude in the idea that it is fine for brains to work at only a small percentage of their capacity, just as it is fine that workers slack off as soon as the boss disappears. You, however, may not want to take part in this antibrain conspiracy. You may see the intimate connection between brainstorms and personal meaning: that to make the meaning you intend to make, you must use more of your brain. I hope that you will vote for brainstorms. It is their light that illuminates the darkness and their fire that warms the human heart.
Where will your productive obsession take you? It's possible that having the time, the mental space, or the newly embraced inclination to tap into your immediate environs will lead you to make a major contribution to your community. Take, for example, Stanley Cogan, who, according to Sarah Kershaw writing in the New York Times, became president of the Queens Historical Society "after a decade of digging through old graveyards in Queens, piecing together crumbling tombstones and peering at fieldstones scrawled with faded letters."
Dr. Cogan, who spent his professional life in schools, teaching and leading, decided upon his retirement to focus on unearthing the history of Queens buried along with the departed in the borough's family cemeteries. He is motivated, he says, by his desire to bring back to life "some of the borough's earliest settlers, many of whose names and gravestones have long been forgotten."
Over time, your commitment to pursuing your obsession and making your work public might, as it has for Stanley Cogan, not only garner you the personal satisfaction that comes with doing work that matters but also add a new, meaningful facet to your self-identity. Maybe you'll become obsessed with orchids, typefaces, birds, insects, or the tides: these are among the productive obsessions you'll encounter as we proceed. Maybe you'll obsess symphonies into existence, or maybe you'll solve your everyday problems. What brainstorms will you create? Aren't you curious to find out?
Q: What is Brainstorm about?
A: Brainstorm is about the way your brain really wants to work if given a chance. Our brain would love to be more focused, engaged, and passionate in our service but we've never been taught how to marshal all those billions of neurons. The brain isn't that interested in the dates of battles or in conjugating verbs — in the kind of work asked of it in school. It would like to dream large and really bite into what interests it. Brainstorm explains how we can train our brain to function at its best. We do that by creating and nurturing productive obsessions, the phrase I'm using for a brain that's really engaged and humming along. When you learn how to create and nurture productive obsessions, you find life more interesting, you get more done, and you feel alive — because your brain is operating in a gear it loves.
Q: What's the difference between obsessions that we don't want and those that we do want — that is, between unproductive obsessions and productive obsessions?
A: Unproductive obsessions are fueled by anxiety and distorted thinking. They aren't in our control — in fact, they control us. Nobody wants or deserves those kinds of obsessions, obsessions with things like not catching a fatal disease or not burning down your house because you forgot to turn a stovetop burner off. Those obsessions grab billions of our neurons, prevent us from thinking straight, and make us miserable. Productive obsessions, on the other hand, also grab billions of our neurons — but in the service of thoughts we want. They aren't fueled by anxiety but by our conscious decisions about where we want to apply our brain's power. It is one thing to obsess about the sky falling and quite another thing to obsess about some astronomical puzzle. Because people are generally anxious, most obsessions are of the unproductive sort. But when you decide to take charge of what you want to think about, when you get a grip on your mind, and when you pursue trains of thought that actually serve you, you begin to create productive obsessions and return your brain's power to your own control.
Q: If productive obsessions are really the way the brain wants to work, why are we so resistant to obsessing productively? Why do we have so much trouble getting passionate and obsessed?
A: Our body would like some exercise — but that doesn't mean that we get up and exercise. We may dream of writing a novel or starting a business — but that doesn't mean that we sit right down and write that novel or start that business. Human beings are surprisingly resistant to doing the things that they really want to do. The same is true of productively obsessing. Most people experience thinking as work and have to learn the habit of focusing their brain on one thing. At first they're resistant; but once they begin to see the rewards — that life is more interesting, that they finally feel engaged, that boredom has been replaced by passion — they accept the work involved and begin to look forward to devoting themselves to their own productive thoughts.
Q: What are some interesting examples of productive obsessions?
A: Obvious historical examples are the way Beethoven chewed on musical themes for decades before they coalesced into symphonies or the way Einstein tackled one mind experiment after another to help him understand relativity. But we've been researching less well-known productive obsessions in every sphere of human activity: art obsessions, science obsessions, activist obsessions, business obsessions, even self-help obsessions and hobbyist obsessions. There are countless fascinating obsessions that people have engaged in, from meticulously recording the tides (and providing valuable information on global warming) to lobbying for acid-free paper in the publishing industry to collecting every available font (and starting a lucrative business) to producing a series of musical scores based on a love affair with Alice in Wonderland. The range of productive obsessions is truly startling and it's also fascinating how many of these private obsessions end up helping society in some concrete, public way.
Q: How can you use the idea of productively obsessing to solve your personal problems?
A: When we have a personal problem, the usual ways we deal with it are to act impulsively, to worry about the problem but not really do anything about it — that is, to unproductively obsess about it — or to deal with it in some other hit-and-miss way. A better way is to productively obsess about it. By productively obsessing you provide yourself with the opportunity to bring to bear optimism, a breath of fresh air, and all of your brain's power to an everyday problem. Productively obsessing is the best way — perhaps the only way — to birth novels and vaccines, but it is also the best way to meet your everyday challenges. Maybe your most pressing concern right now is finding your mother a Medicaid bed in an assisted-living facility. Maybe it's making arrangements to keep your business running while you recuperate from an operation. Maybe it's making sense of your career or your impending retirement. Whatever it may be, by focusing your brain on the problem you give yourself the best chance possible to find a smart, workable solution to the problem.
Q: What are your top three tips for people who want to productively obsess?
A: One important tip is that you need to plan for your productive obsessions — first you choose your obsession but then you need to fit that obsession into the rest of your life. For example, do you have a day job? Then plan that when you leave your job for the day, you really leave it: the second you punch out, you stop thinking about your co-worker's rudeness or whatever else is on your mind and turn to your obsession. Do you have a family vacation coming up? Plan how to steal some time from it for the sake of your obsession. Maybe you'll make yourself available to your family all day long — except for the two hours you steal while the family recuperates from the theme park. Plan when you will say yes to your obsession, when you will say no to it — and plan to say yes more often than no!
The second tip is that you want to think through how you will manage your productive obsession. A productive obsession stirs the mind up. Think of a snow globe or a soda can being shaken. In the first case, the snow settles calmly of its own accord: the snow globe is designed that way. In the second case it is very hard, sometimes verging on impossible, to open that can without courting an explosion. You want to be a snow globe and not a soda can. You want to self-regulate. When you create brainstorms you're creating internal lightning and thunder: but you also want to be able to control that energy so that when it's time to read your daughter a bedtime story you can effortlessly shut down your obsession.
The third tip is that you want to learn how to easily switch gears between your ordinary way of thinking and your productive obsessing. Much of the difficulty in pursuing a productive obsession is how exhausting it can feel to repeatedly switch gears between your normal life and your obsessive life. Imagine that you have — or are — a flawless transmission system, whisper quiet and beautifully constructed, that allows you to move efficiently through the day from one gear to another, revving up to obsess, revving down to peel some potatoes or chat with your mate. This flawless movement is the exact equivalent of getting out of your own way!
Q: Isn't obsessing — even productively obsessing — a little dangerous? Are there some warning signs to look out for so that you don't go overboard?
A: Absolutely — your goal isn't to rev yourself up into a clinical mania, forget to pay the rent, cavalierly ignore your loved ones, or drive other good thoughts out of your brain. Productive obsessions are one of the ways that we make meaning but we don't put them on a higher pedestal than that, we don't give up everything in their favor, and we don't allow them to lead us about by the neurons. The time will come every day when a productive obsession must be shut down and it is your job to let the steam escape and ramp the obsession down. What's important in this regard is that you have a real life to turn to, because if your everyday life isn't working for you, you'll be inclined to keep percolating away with your obsession.
Frank, a physicist in my cyberspace productive obsession group, had something interesting to say on this point. He explained, "I'm involved in the world of string theory. Part of me is fascinated by my research and my speculations and part of me is attached to the research because I hate going home at night to my empty apartment. So I stay at the lab as late as I possibly can. I can tell that sometimes I would love to stop obsessing and just have a meal with somebody or take in a movie or do something normal, but it is harder to contrive a normal evening than it is to keep obsessing. For me to control my productive obsession with string theory I would have to create a life first — and that feels like a taller order than figuring out the ultimate nature of the universe."
You do want to carefully monitor your productive obsessions and keep an eye peeled for warning signs. Is anxiety driving your obsession? Is your life falling apart? Do you feel in control of your obsession or does it feel in control of you? Are you making smooth transitions from obsessing to everyday living? Is the pressure ramped up too high? You have the job of keeping an eye on the process and remembering that your productive obsessions are there to serve you and not rule you.
Q: How can people get started productively obsessing?
A: Naturally the book is full of tips for getting started. I suggest to folks who are intrigued by the idea that they try their hand at productively obsessing for a month. The first steps are the two most obvious ones: choose your productive obsession and really bite into it. People find that a month is a fascinating amount of time to spend focusing on one idea. Georges Simenon routinely wrote his novels in a month's time — in three weeks, actually, with a week left over for golf! If you're productively obsessing, in a month you might create a business plan and begin to enact it or write enough songs for an album. By spending a month productively obsessing you are learning how to extinguish distractions so that you can concentrate, training yourself to work hard on your own behalf, and fully committing to your own loves and interests. Choose your productive obsession today and get ready for a thrilling brain ride! •
©2010 Eric Maisel. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions. Copyright ©2010 by Eric and Ann Maisel. Published with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
Eric Maisel is the author of Making Your Creative Mark, Brainstorm, The Van Gogh Blues, and other books on creativity and living a meaning-filled artistic life. More