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A Note on Obsessions: When Does the Magic Happen?

We throw around the words obsession and passion often, using them interchangeably. One is an idea or a thought that continually occupies someone’s mind, while the latter is an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. Hence there are certain nuances. I am obsessed with watching choreography online. I can’t get enough. Hence you can say that I have a passion for dance…and so it goes. However it behooves me to explain that despite having this disposition towards this hobby, I am rather timid when it comes to discovering my academic or career obsessions. Although I have discovered a passion, or ‘an intense enthusiasm’, for aviation and coding I haven’t the slightest clue if I can deem any facet of these as my obsessions. This is a cause of concern as it is becoming increasingly evident at this point in my life that many of my peers can confidently say that they are obsessed with rotorcrafts, or C++.

What I do know however is that for the longest time I've held on to the distinct notion that being obsessed with something doesn't necessarily bring about the healthiest outcomes. Too much of any one thing is never deemed 'healthy'. Perhaps even being 'obsessed' with your health or grades – positive and ‘productive’ things to care about – conjures this image of a crazy bug eyed individual. Obsessions aren't good - or so I've been told. And yet it's the individuals that are obsessed, that are working tirelessly that get the best results. Opportunities to climb the corporate ladder like my dad or landing glitzy internships like my best friends don’t occur without hard work. Every day I tell myself that I am ready to embrace the difficult – never one to back away from a challenge - but I keep getting stuck on these questions: what does it mean to work tirelessly? Are we ever to find a balance?

Between balancing a chaotic class schedule filled with part-time jobs, research and clubs, maintaining strong friendships, ringing family back home, and exercising and eating healthy - the demands of everyday life are exhausting. Furthermore, to excel at any of these requires sincere dedication and occasionally dabbling in patterns of obsession. While I have frequently engaged in bouts of intense work periods or calorie-counted meals, I have yet to perform any of these with the intensity of what one would call an obsession. However my question here is – to create the magic and to do wonderful, incredible things – do we have to be obsessive? Over the course of the past month I’ve asked role models in the forms of friends, parents and industry leaders the same question. Internalising the plethora of advice I received made me realise a few things. I had never thought of myself as being obsessive by nature. More so, my dedication to schoolwork and other pursuits was because of this innate need to be dutiful. Even now as I sit here and type this instead of choosing to be on a train to Luxembourg, I realise that it is not out of obsession or guilt but much rather a sense of duty to my role as a student.

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Processing what I was to do with these realisations was interesting as I received a wide range of anecdotes about obsessions with no experiences myself that I could use to make sense of it all. One of these was regarding health. On one hand I had a friend who never really made conscious food choices before. Her ‘solution’ for weight loss was skipping meals here and there. When it then came to joining the ‘clean eating’ bandwagon she ate salad for every meal and ran 5 miles on the elliptical every day. While her dedication is incredibly commendable and brought about results immediately, she still recalls not being in a healthy mindset. Calorie counting had left her going to sleep a bit hungry every night as she was disciplining herself with eating rather than enjoying it. Since everything was obsessively geared towards weight loss she couldn’t initially make a sustainable lifestyle change. Her journey is now at the cross roads of accepting her obsessive nature and gearing it towards researching recipes and traversing the aisles of grocery stores figuring out what her body needs to be strong for both college and fitness classes.

Now I had never really tried to skip meals myself before, and so had no way of knowing whether it’d be effective given what feels like imminent weight gain whilst studying abroad in Europe. Was ‘intermittent fasting’ or science's approved way of ‘skipping meals’ the answer? I didn’t know. What I did know however was how declaring that it’d be ‘my last hurrah in terms of junk food’ was as unsustainable as the aforementioned anecdote. Hence my friend’s experiences that I recalled in ‘What Worked’ became particularly relevant as it taught me to gauge how something would affect my body on the inside. What was so special about her approach was less talk about calories and more about “Okay if eat this greasy Halal food then I’m going to feel sick eventually.” vs. “If I eat this salad, I’m going to feel fresh because I’m putting real food in my body”. Her prioritization of self-care and her appearance was also notable as it wasn’t ostentatious. This helped me draw the conclusion that while food and fitness related obsessions could bring about fast results, having a more relaxed but keen-eyed approach could perhaps bring about more sustainable outcomes.

Now I’d heard this before. I knew this.

What I didn’t know was how to navigate academic obsessions. When was it time to call it quits on a project and head to bed? When would it be enough work for the day? Taking it easy led me to taking it too easy. Working hard led to all-nighters. However, these past few weeks I’ve had an immense amount of success in remaining focused, as I’ve simply had no other choice. When there is no choice you just do. Initially, this perfectly corresponded with finals-week at school. Now with a more lax schedule I’ve managed to recreate that environment of focus by giving myself less time to complete a task in a non stress-inducing manner, allowing my capacity to rise to the occasion. The thing about capacities is that they ebb and flow. They depend on the choices that you give yourself and what you prioritise.

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On a lazy Monday such as this, with no school I prioritised scrolling through LinkedIn and came across a compelling take on academic and career obsessions. Dan Galperin, co-founder and CTO of League Inc. an insurance agency, declares that obsessions are positive. They fuel you and it can only be positive if you strive to complete more tasks. If you want to have that high level of achievement he says, you must be passionate about what you are doing - and obsessed with how you can do it better. In fact, this is true for accomplishing anything. What really nailed it in was his point on how debating whether an obsession is beneficial or not is of no use. It is probably taking a lot of your mental space anyway and hence it is beneficial to only do. Think about it, make plans about it and work on it. What is especially important here is to identify an end. This is something I particularly struggle with.

There has to be an end.

The reason why we look bug eyed is because ‘the end’ (for college students at least) is perhaps ‘the end goal’ grades or a job. You can’t obsess over the end goal grades. If the outcome is too far in the future it cannot justify unhealthy means. This whittles down to making a to do list that you can actually accomplish. It’s all about convincing yourself that you’re going to get it done, planning for it, and then simply completing the tasks that need to be done in a day but not fretting about the future (read: ‘Saying Goodbye to That Monkey’). Furthermore, Galperin is convinced that if you are not obsessed with what you are doing, you are either doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing the wrong way. Most likely, the former. This particularly stuck a chord as it made me consider how I could approach aviation and coding differently to do the right thing in the right way.

So where does this leave me?

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A month ago I attended a Microsoft workshop for Women in Tech where I received the following piece of advice when I posed the same questions: Don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you need to do. Don’t let any fad shape the direction in which you want to go. Take the time to understand what is good for you. What is going to help you? Don’t engage in self-destructive behaviour. Memes and jokes aside, cultivate healthy, positive habits. What are you passionate about? What would make you obsessed? If you don't know, keep searching. When you figure it out and give it your complete focus, that's when the magic happens.

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