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An Interview with Author Eric Maisel, Ph.D.

Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obessions

by New World Library

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of Brainstorm and numerous other titles including Creativity for Life, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francico. America’s foremost creativity coach, he is widely known as a creativity expert who coaches individuals and trains creativity coaches throughworkshops and keynotes nationally and internationally. Ann Mathesius Maisel, MA, is a former teacher and school administrator now engaged in researching the productive obsessions of historical and contemporary figures. Her special interests are the productive obsessions of writers, artists, scientists, and naturalists. Visit Eric Maisel’s website at: www.ericmaisel.com.

What is Brainstorm about?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

What are some interesting examples of productive obsessions?

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.

How can you use the idea of productively obsessing to solve your personal problems?

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.

What are your top three tips for people who want to productively obsess?

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!

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?

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.

How can people get started productively obsessing?

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!

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