The Very Best Are Obsessed

On his book tour in San Francisco, the noted crime novelist James Ellroy said:

I'm interested in doing very few things. I don't have a cell phone. Don't have a computer. Don't have a TV set. Don't go to movies. Don't read. I ignore the world so I might live obsessively.

This seems to be the case among many mega-successful people. They are obsessed with their talent. They can do little else, even if they've already hit it big. You see it a lot in writers like Ellroy. The very best entrepreneurs seem to be this way, as well. Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal, can't get off the saddle, even after making lots of money. He's now famously a workaholic at Slide.

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Here's how James Ellroy began a recent public appearance:

Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is the Manson Family.

12 Responses to The Very Best Are Obsessed

  1. Kevin says:

    And yet at the same time, I have read/heard/pondered that curiosity is the trait that leads to success. Is curiosity another way of saying obsessiveness in ones talent? Or is it another, wholly different means to achieve success (defined in a liberal sense)? I tend to agree with the later.

  2. Justin Wehr says:

    Cell phone, computer, TV, movies… fine. But how is it possible to become successful at anything without reading, especially if you are a novelist? Stephen King I think could be considered an obsessive, yet he reads as much as he can so he can study the craft.

  3. Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    This works once you have acquired a certain level of talent, wisdom, understanding in your art: there is a point at which immersing in the source (life as she is lived) is no longer as important as before.

    However, often these people come unstuck and run out of ideas, and if they are surrounded by lackeys, they won’t notice. Many artists where this is evident. Their standards slide embarrassingly downhill even though the $$ may still be rolling in (or not).

    Also, it’s a really popular excuse for ducking out of things you don’t want to do: “I’m an obseessive artistic creative type!”

    Also, James Ellroy’s statement is open to misinterpretation: ignoring the world doesn’t make you an obsessive; obsessives just tend to ignore (what most other people call )”the world”.

    Also, your title says “the very best” are obsessed, not just “many mega-successful people”. I would (genuinely) love to know if there are any statistics for this: it’s such a popular discussion subject in creativity-seeking circles, someone must have done a study? I know some mega-successful people are anything but obsessed, and it’s standard practice among artists to take time off for rediscovering the world so as to gain new ideas.

    What’s the difference between passion and commitment, and being “obsessed” to the point of abnormal behaviour in other areas? The latter is an optional extra that may or may not be valuable, depending on the individual & what counts as abnormal.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Good comment Alice. I'm not sure what the precise differences are but I
    certainly think that the very best are incredibly passionate (or obsessed)
    about their work, to the exclusion of other things.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Right. "Reading in the inhale, writing is the exhale," as Justine Musk says.

    I would say most obsessive novelists are also big readers.

  6. Anish Shah says:

    I recently had a conversation similar to this.

    Do you think people overly obsessed with one area (think/work on it 24/7) and have some level of success live happy existences?

    I thought no – because they can’t enjoy the basic great things about life and are never satisfied…don’t know how to smell the roses. My two friends disagreed saying they’re doing what makes them happy and get to “geek out” so to speak constantly.

    Thoughts?

  7. Krishna says:

    James Ellroy brand of obsession to me reads like a paranoid rant. Their fixation is at best an excuse to avoid the *world* (of other better writers) where they know they clearly don’t measure up. It is born out of fear of being drowned out of existence by superior talent. Their outsized ego wouldn’t let them shed that conceited veneer which they desperately want others (their readers at least) to endorse. It is escapism, not a virtue that they themselves are proud of.

    How else to size up a sleazoid presumptive klutz that is certain that his audience is nothing but a bunch of “peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    This is the negative way of reading Ellroy, yes. I think his name-calling of the audience was more joking than serious btw.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    I do not think these types of obsessives are happy most of the time. Many appear to be depressed.

  10. Regarding James Ellroy’s “obsession” and his claim that he doesn’t have a cell phone, a computer, or a TV and doesn’t go to movies, doesn’t read and generally ignores the world:

    Given the content of that speech, we have every reason to believe that Ellroy is a world-class liar, so I would fall back on the default position of assuming everything he says is a lie.

    He comes off like the William Burroughs of sleazy softcore pulp.

  11. Krishna says:

    I normally don’t take extreme positions. But when Middle-of-the-road exposes a bottomless pit, it’s better to skid in the side and betray some candor.

  12. Mike Brown says:

    The thing to know about Ellroy is that he’s a salesman and his product is not only his books but his persona. He’s had that same preamble at many of his readings that I’ve attended over the last 10 years–it’s part of his schtick and (as these comments have shown) draw a crowd. If you’re an Ellroy fan, you groove on it; if you don’t get it, then you’re probably not one of his people.

    He does read (and has a research assistant) but mainly related to the historical period he’s writing about at the time. His stated object is to think big thoughts about his novels and stories, and he does that by reducing his distractions to the minimal. His belief is that writers are made, not born, and if you read his memoir (“My Dark Places”) you’ll see that in action.

    But his phrasing of all this is way more colorful and controversial than mine :)

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