Devotion vs. Obsession

For a lot of my life, I was devoted to things that I couldn’t help but pay attention to. After college, I dated a girl who wasn’t a good fit for me. My roommates at the time took us canoeing and we fought the entire time. Years later they told me they could always tell how a relationship was going for the people they took on these trips. If they fought the relationship usually wouldn’t last.

Still, I couldn’t let her go. Even when she got engaged to someone else I found myself calling her and having these wistful conversations. I wasn’t good for her and she wasn’t good for me. But I was devoted. The devotion just wasn’t by choice.

If you pay attention to music, books, and music this is the kind of devotion you see a lot of. This feeling of not being able to stop thinking about someone, to stop pursuing some dream, to let go of a hunch. And obsession isn’t always bad. People who are obsessed with science and math have made incredible discoveries, but obsession isn’t the most powerful way to relate to devotion.

This is especially true in our relationships but it’s also true for our work.

No matter what it is, a beautiful partner, an amazing project, or a challenging problem to solve, obsession always runs out. It wanes and trembles in the face of reality.

True devotion is more solid than that. True devotion is a choice you make to give yourself to something, and that means giving all of yourself. Not just the self that always feels like showing up. It means giving the part of yourself that’s grumpy, unsure, full of doubt, and tired. It means offering yourself with all of your imperfections.

True devotion finds a way through obstacles and the ebb of energy.

This is the shift the Buddha made before he became enlightened. For years he was obsessed with waking up. He starved himself, stood on one leg for days, and sat with tremendous physical pain, but when he let go of his obsession and instead brought his devotion to practice everything shifted.

This lesson is one I’m still learning, because for me obsession feels more familiar. It feels easier to lose myself in my desire and passion for someone or for a project. And sometimes I let myself. But I don’t stay there.

As I let go of the emotional intoxication of obsession I either return to devotion or I let it go. Because I’m not really interested in living my life from the standpoint of a victim even if it gives some energy and excitement. What I’m interested in is living my life from the standpoint of a leader and giving my full devotion to those things that are truly worthy.