Obsession has come to have a positive connotation. Individuals and companies brag about being obsessed about this or that. But obsession is a psychosis, and the original meaning of the word is still valid.

Obsession, according to the canons of psychology, occurs when an innocuous idea is substituted for a painful one. The victim simply avoids recognizing the thing which will hurt. [source]

Obsession with small things is a way to avoid thinking about big things. Maybe our company is sinking like a rock, but our website is valid XHTML 1.1! Maybe my relationships are falling apart, but I’ve almost got all my GTD applications configured the way I want them. Maybe my paper makes absolutely no contribution to science, but now I’ve got another publication.

Paying attention to detail because it is important is not obsession. And when people brag about being obsessed, they’re probably trying to imply that this is what they’re doing. Details matter in relation to a bigger picture. Focusing on details in isolation, hoping that the bigger picture will take care of itself, is obsession.

10 thoughts on “Obsession

  1. “Maybe my paper makes absolutely no contribution to science, but now I’ve got another publication.” — “and that gives me and my family money for food, rent and insurance for another year”.

    What may look trivial or unimportant from one perspective may be very significant from another.

  2. Sure, writing worthless scientific papers pays the bills, but why not pay the bills by trying to do something important?

    My concern here is people who don’t even consider whether their work is important. It’s not that I don’t think their work is important, but that they don’t think it is either, or at least they don’t care whether it is.

    Someone might do important science by accident, but they’re more likely to do something important by trying.

  3. I used to have obsessions, and now that I need one the most, I can’t find it anymore.

    Sometimes it’s important to hide the painful idea for a while.

  4. Hey, if it got published, who decides if it’s “worthless”?

    And why would you assume somebody willing and able to put in the time and do the research to generate a publishable paper, would think it’s “worthless”? Quite frankly, I’m tired of people evaluating other people’s work and motivations as “worthless”. If you want to publish something YOU think is “worthless”, that’s one thing. But evaluating others that way smacks of amazing arrogance and condescension.

  5. AllanL5: As I said in my previous comment, my concern is people who don’t think their OWN work is important or don’t care.

    Why would I think people would publish papers they think are worthless? Because they’ve told me so. Some people are quite candid about it. Others are not, but they get nervous and change the subject if you ask questions about value.

  6. @AllanL5: I think John is railing against things like gaming of paper publishing into “Least Publishable Units” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_publishable_unit). I.e., how best can I capitalize on the publishing process, vs. how best can I disseminate knowledge?

    Einstein’s paper where he shows e=mc^2 was… (wait for it) 3 pages. http://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/einstein/E_mc2/e_mc2.pdf. Concise and readable to a “layman” in physics.

    In the modern academic publishing environment, how would this have been parceled out? Could he have split it into 50 subpapers, each with a tiny, “worthless” amount of information? (vs. aggregating the results into a really useful result and presenting it at once).

  7. “Passion” has also been sullied by an overzealous business jargonariat. I am pretty sure that no-one actually feels passionate about customer service. The execs might spend a little more on doing it well, but nobody’s going to roll around in the grass with customer service or dream about settling down in a quaint house and making lots of babies with customer service.

    It’s a bit like being driven. “We are looking for ambitious, driven individuals.” Who, then, is doing the driving?

  8. I’ve gone a similar path with a previous startup where we were obsessed with details, but never stepped back to ask the question of why those details mattered (and in many cases they didn’t). I make a deliberate point now of always trying to relate a decision to a core business value, and when I can’t, I try not to obsess about it so dramatically.

  9. Yikes. Well thank you all for the updates, I had no idea academic publishing was open to such ‘gaming the system’.

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