As I try to craft something that resembles a unique outlook on life, I find myself constantly trying to condense my bouillabaisse of books, podcast interviews, and personal experiences into coherent ideas. And certain trends begin to reveal themselves, not least the importance of obsession. Whenever I read about my heroes, regardless of their professions, the common denominator is always their utter obsession with their work. Nobody ever seems to reach the pinnacle of the artistic world by simply dipping a toe in the water.
It’s far from the worst news, because I’m nothing if not easily obsessed. It comes out in my writing, as I often worry these newsletters cast me in a narrow light. I try to cover a variety of topics, but certain interests live rent-free in my head, and it’s impossible to evict them. Things like Steve Jobs, the 2017 Oscars, Tiger Woods, the Grateful Dead, and Billions are just impossible for me to avoid, no matter what I’m talking about. And then there’s that singer-songwriter who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I sometimes write about him too.
So while I may not be able to obsess over writing at the level I need to, I’ve lived most of my life thinking about the same art, the same people over and over again. If I can just aim this laser focus at my work, I should be golden.
How’s that for an introduction to a blog?
These thoughts are swirling through my mind because I just finished listening to some old Bob Dylan recordings. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my favorite album of all time is Blood on the Tracks. If I had to rank my obsessions, that record would certainly be near the top. But of course, with Bob Dylan, you can never get the full story from listening to an album. His legendary outtakes are almost as rich as his official releases, as much of his best work was left on the cutting room floor. He’s famous for dramatically reworking the arrangements of his songs, both in concert and in the recording studio, and many of his best songs were left off his albums. I was listening to a collection of these outtakes from the Blood on the Tracks sessions (released under the name More Blood More Tracks, in the laziest piece of marketing in music history). They were primarily different versions of famous songs, early drafts that got discarded in favor of the product we all know and love.
And all I could think was “I can’t believe how good this is.”
Obviously I wasn’t actually surprised that my hero had produced something great. But these early drafts, while dramatically different from the finished product, were stunningly beautiful in their own right. And my first reaction was, “if I had recorded this, there’s no way I would have kept working on it.” On a scale from 1-100, some of these recordings were easily a 95. I can’t believe that anyone, even the greatest songwriter ever, would have thrown them away and gone back to the drawing board. Of course the final version was probably a 99, but he couldn’t have possibly known he’d get there. To throw away something so insanely great, with the hope that you could eventually make it 4% better, is a tremendous act of creative courage. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think “no matter how far I think I’ve come, I have a LONG way to go.”
Bob Dylan recording “Blood on the Tracks” is probably the perfect adverb for the level of obsession with which we should approach our work. So often, art feels like a finish line to me. I just have to finish this final draft, then I’ll be DONE, and I can have the satisfaction of creating something. Most days, I’d be thrilled to write something that’s a 95. A lot of my readers would probably advise me to shoot for a 65. But if there’s a little bit of improvement to be had, we need to shoot for it.
A new metric I’ll be using is “how good is the stuff I’m throwing away?” Everyone’s output varies in quality from day to day. But when we produce something great, it’s easy to rest on our laurels. To excel at your craft, you must be obsessed enough to throw away the very good in pursuit of the truly great.