written by
Major Tom

The Case for Finding Your Healthy Obsession

8 min read
“To succeed, work hard, never give up and above all cherish a magnificent obsession.” Walt Disney

If you were called obsessive, you would likely take offense.

However, a "healthy obsession" is the essential antidote to personal stagnation.

Whether you want a successful career or an online business, your "healthy obsession" will light your path.

It's the "sword in the stone" to your online journey.

However, most people, myself included, have not had a clear mental model of how to cultivate a healthy obsession. We’ve been stuck seeing obsession as bad.

While the "online gurus" will advise you to "find a niche market" or a brainstorm you "niche idea," they often don't provide enough coloring in how to develop this.

When they do, they they suggest looking from the outside-in to find your niche product, to research an emerging Google trend, or to join a Facebook group. Those actually are good places to get potential ideas.

Your online journey will eventually involve identifying your ideal customer or your target audience; however, doing so involves the deep work of cultivating a healthy obsession.

That starts from within, not from without.

Obsession vs Idolatry

Obsession gets a bad rap.

Obsession can be mistaken for idolatry.

Idolatry corrodes the soul. Such an "unhealthy obsession" can lead you down a destructive path.

In fact, you may already be idolizing something. Most marketed distractions whet our appetite for idolizing some new ritual, object, collection, location, status, or appearance.

Some companies design their apps to instill obsessive compulsion.

However, if you remain down the rabbit hole of an idolatrous obsessive compulsion, you'll never embark on the journey to discover your unique productive obsession.

An idolatrous obsession, however, can be redeemed. Having one provides you with the signal to discover your healthy obsession. Here are some examples which, if left in the realm of consumption, could be harmful:

  • Playing videos games
  • Collecting robot toys
  • Sculpting great abs
  • Baking tarts
  • Engaging in social media

These activities aren’t bad on their own as hobbies or activities. Arguably, each one of these have the foundation as being a possible niche.

Therein is the potential seed of an online business!

Obsession leads to specialization. Examples:

  • How to win at the video games
  • In-depth knowledge of robot toys
  • Direct experience and insight into sculpting abs
  • Nuances around baking tarts
  • Lessons in what works in social

I'm often envious of those who can spend all of their time in an obsession. Not only because it can lead to specialization, but because these obsessions often have built-in audience.

Although specialization is a valuable by-product of obsession, it's not enough to make the shift from idolatry to healthy obsession.

Obsession vs Specialization

Someone can have highly specialized knowledge.

Yet this can be a value trap on your journey to finding a niche idea.

True, it is possible for someone to discover a blog niche by pouring your specialized knowledge online. That display of encyclopedic knowledge could be sufficient to stand out to customers, employers, and clients.

If it resonates with the market or the culture, specialization exposes a niche market or niche idea that turns into a valuable business.

And if so, then you have made the foundation to your personal brand.

In a competitive economy, valuable and specialized knowledge are table stakes to survival. Expertise may not be enough to create a valuable brand.

For sure, obsession is better than nonchalance. Nonchalance will never result in specialization in anything. When all things are boring, there will never be specialization.

Specialization, however, is not be enough.

For example, this character from the show “Friends” was arguably obsessed with dinosaurs.

This is the right foundation for productive obsession. But it’s insufficient on its own.

Ross obsesses about dinosaurs. So much so that he became a paleontologist.

But also because he is surprised when someone does not care about dinosaurs as much as he is. His desperation exhausts him and his converts.

However, those positive attributes are essential to standing out:

  • Specialization
  • Desire to evangelize
  • Focus and energy

In many ways, he is living his dream career as a paleontologist: he gets to live and breathe his obsession while getting paid for it.

To me, this should be the True North of anyone’s Online Hero’s Journey.

However, despite all this great stuff, he’s still missing one thing:

What is the problem others care about that he obsesses over solving?

The curse of specialization is to just care about the specialization and its information. In this case, probably other paleontologist and a few kids (kids probably really do love dinosaurs).

However, the specialization of knowledge does not mean obsessing over solving a problem.

Ross knows a lot about dinosaurs; he deeply desires for others to know about it.

Someone who knows much about climate and pollution is not the same as Al Gore, who cares about solving the problem of global warming.

Shifting consumption and specialization into problem-solving is one key unlock.

Obsessing Over the People and the Problem

Obsession is the energy, perhaps even the flywheel, that will lead to your online business and ultimately to your personal brand.

Imagine if Ross were to explore further rather than just raising up his hands and ranting, “Why don’t people understand how cool dinosaurs are!?”

Instead, what if he began to explore some of the following questions:

  • “How could kids learn about dinosaurs better than they currently are?”
  • “How could parents who know nothing about dinosaurs teach their kids in an interactive way which helps their kids learn about time management?”
  • “How could science museums quadruple attendance by teaching about dinosaurs without adding a single new dinosaur bone?”
  • “How could Christians teach about dinosaurs while also educating others about creationism?”

Do you see how identifying the people with the problem gracefully leads to discovering your potential customers and your target audience.

Language matters. Thinking about “potential customers” might just be too abstract versus just thinking about people and their problems.

Now imagine if Ross were obsessed with solving one of this dinosaur-related problems?

Most obsessions are a form of distraction and consumption.

While this can lead to specialization, specialization alone is insufficient to have a productive obsession.

Ideally, as a result of your obsession, you are learning from others to frame the right people problem.

Common ways to reframe into a problem

The key “unlock” for yourself is to search for the right people who may have a problem related to your obsession.

You have uncovered a “new world” through your obsession; but now you need to discover how to help others and find allies to do so.

Examples of discovering who those people could be:

  • Others who share the same obsession as you to the same level
  • Others who don’t yet share the obsession, but could benefit if they did
  • Others who don’t and won’t care, but your specialization through obsession can help other achieve their own goal

The best way to uncover this is to embark on your “Online Hero’s Journey” to discover what is the true goal and transformation of going through this “new world” through your obsession.

But what if you don’t yet have your healthy obsession?

I have been there.

Maybe I am still there.

So I am going onto this journey to uncover what it could be.

Follow along with me in this thread:

Lessons in Obsession from Art

Many online entrepreneurs found a profitable online business through deliberate niche research and niche selection.

But it's very hard to be obsessed with what you find this way.

The people problem you obsess over, that chosen niche that draws you in, actually finds you.

Not every single obsession must solve a problem as we understand problems in order to be productive.

If you want to build an online business or a differentiated career, that is the way to go.

Art might be one area where not solving an “explicit” problem might still yield online gains commercially (especially now that crypto and NFTs are creating a way to monetize art in new ways.)

However, the types of problems that “art” uncover and solves reveals a way for more mundane businesses can also uncover a deep problem to solve.

I read about an artist (sorry couldn’t find it online) who specialized in just drawing a single black line on white canvas over and over (I though it was Franz Kline, but reading up on him, doesn’t seem like it)

Each time he created one, it was unique.

But there was embedded in this a search for “perfection” in that line. Which raised questions of what does perfection look like. How do things change with time (did the lines actually get better and if so, why?)

I think he also evoked a sense of minimalism: can beautiful be found in a precise line, perhaps begging the question that many other paintings are generating more “noise” that true “signal”?

Compare this to the “cheap” art in the age of disposable culture found rife in many NFTs which are hastily created.

Great art comes from a healthy obsession. The problem may be one that only the artist cares about...but that, once expressed, the audience does as well.

The lessons learned from craftsmanship found in obsessive artists can guide one starting a business or building a career in this competitive digital world.

So what was the problem statement this black line artist could have been trying to solve?

“How can I create the perfect line which evokes deep emotional reaction in my audience to question noise over signal, perfection over shallowness?”

I don’t know if he truly posed those questions. But if he did obsess over it, it imbued his art with meaning for those who cared about those problems.

Everyone’s journey begins with searching for that healthy obsession.