Passion Vs. Obsession

Bobby Fischer’s Chess Game Vs. The Cuban Missile Crisis

There is an apocryphal chess story involving Bobby Fischer that I find myself reflecting on often.

As the story goes, in 1962 a number of high ranking American chess players had gathered to strategize and practice for an upcoming international chess tournament.  This happened to be during what would later be know as “The Cuban Missile Crisis”, and everyone on hand was sitting around watching the events unfold on television and talking about what the possible outcomes would be.  Many people thought that we were going to have a nuclear war and, in retrospect, we came very close to having that happen.

Everyone, that is, except Bobby Fischer who was looking at a chess board and getting increasingly annoyed until he couldn’t stand it anymore and finally yelled out, “Can anyone tell me what this has to do with chess?”

Obsession vs. Passion

By their nature of practicing the same things over and over again, many guitar players are obsessive about all aspects of what they do.  Non-guitarists will often laugh as players get into endless arguments about who the better player is, or the better guitar or the better amp or any other aspect of minutiae that is lost on non players.

When you start off playing guitar – you have to have some element of this going for you because the discipline it takes to get calluses, much less get the finger strength to play the dreaded first position F Major partial barre chord, is not something that comes natural to some people.

For myself, I engaged in everything that I did at 100%.  When I was at Berklee, like many players I knew at the time – iit was difficult to find me without a guitar in my hand but if you did – it was when I was looking for new music, reading a book, watching a film or going to the gym – all in service of making me a better player.  For example, I went to the gym to increase my stamina and try to look better on stage.  And there wasn’t a plan – beyond a general desire to become a “professional guitarist” – it was just a series of events and occurrences that came about from having poor impulse control (“Go to a film?  Sure! Let’s go!”) and following things through to some kind of end that either came from boredom (aka the goldfish mentality – “I’m tired of working on this – OH THAT’S a cool Lick!”) or actual completion.

As my life after my undergrad went from months to years to decades after I stopped going there, a strange mid-life crisis came about.

Stage one was, “You’re not going to be a rock star.”  That was okay, because I knew this early on and I also had no desire to be a rock star.  I always wanted to be in a band rather than a solo artist and when I imagined what I wanted to do ideally – it was playing in something like Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds where they could play theater level shows anywhere in the world and make a comfortable living.

This was less of an issue for me than it was for other people.  In other words, as the years went on and I got better as a player and a teacher the people around me (who really cared about me but didn’t understand what I was doing), started pushing the whole, “So since this music thing isn’t making you any money perhaps its time to move on and do something else.”  See the rock star thing wasn’t interesting to me, but being able to devote myself to something I loved was interesting to me.

Stage two was, “You’re not getting any younger and the music business isn’t getting any better.”

The first step of this involved taking a series of gigs that I didn’t like just to keep playing guitar and feel that I could call myself a professional musician.  This was basically letting the judgmental nonsense of other players I knew infect my head and drill down into my feelings of self identity.  This lead down a very dark path that took me a long time to understand what was going on and to swing out of.

The second step was just seeing all of the traditional paths that I knew worked vanishing in front of me.  In hindsight, not a bad thing but that was pretty scary writing on the wall for a while.

So everything was an end to a goal.  I’d take a day job to pay bills and do whatever I had to try to advance myself at the same time.

But a lot suffered because of it.  Because of this self added pressure – I was always wrapping my head around what the next step would be.  Everything was goal and task driven which was great for goals and tasks but not so great for everything else.

And life is mostly everything else.

I’d go on vacation and get really tense because I wasn’t getting anything done.  I’d watch TV and run scales because at least I was “doing something”.  It was crazy making and while it was supposed to be self-empowering it just became self defeating because no matter what was done – there was always more to do.  Literally everything became, “What does this have to do with guitar?”

And I burned myself out.  With so many things fighting for attention and fighting for mental bandwidth the circuits just fried.  And getting back up on that horse and engaging again was BRUTAL.

Doing anything at a high level requires some level of passion in either the thing being done or in the person doing it.  Obsession is a common side effect of diving full in to something but – trust me here – in paraphrasing Socrates, the obsessed life is not worth living.  Not if it’s at the extent of something else.  You’ll either burn out everyone around you, burn out yourself or both.

Bobby Fischer was a brilliant chess player but there’s nothing else in his life you want to model yourself on.  Be passionate and be engaged but keep an eye out for your Cuban Missile Crisis freak out as well.

I hope this helps!


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