Recently, I had a rather long discussion with a close non-martial-arts-friend of mine about the difference between being committed to something and being overly obsessed with something. Dedication and its relevance to success is of much interest to me, so I got really into the discussion. I was also eager to distinguish the two terms because I have often been labeled as “obsessed” when I feel that the term does not fairly apply. While I acknowledge that there are some people out there who do become obsessed with their endeavors in an unhealthy way, I believe that most people mistake healthy dedication for unhealthy obsession.
To begin such a discussion, one will first need to define some termonology. “Obsession” has a connotation as an unhealthy attachment to some thought or activity to the point where this attachment interfers with important elements of one’s life, and therefore the excessive attachment has a strong negative overall impact on the individual’s life. For example, a business person who is so attached to the workings of his or her business that he or she would neglect the needs of his or her children to the point where the children go hungry can be said to be obsessed with that business since the individual would be caring for the business before caring for his or her own children. Likewise, an alcoholic who shows up to work drunk and loses his or her job can be said to be obsessed with drinking because this alcoholic has, in this case, placed more importance on drinking that performing his or her job well. In both these cases, the obsessed individual can be said to be excessively attached to an activity to the point where the attachment has a visible and overall negative affect on the obsessed individual’s life; seeing to the health of one’s own children should come before one’s business career, and maintaining one’s occupation or career should come before indulgence in spirited beverages. Obsession is an excess of attachment that leads to a negative outcome.
“Dedication,” on the other hand, is the continual putting forth of effort, time, and resources towards a particular goal or endeavor. Any Olympic athlete can be said to be dedicated to his or her sport or art; one does not make it to the Olympics without continual effort, time, and investment of resources. It takes a lot of hours of training to hone one’s self to that point, and probably some costly equipment and training was also necessary. A student who pulls a 4.0 GPA can also be said to be dedicated because that student had to be continually focused and his or her studies in order to achieve such a high GPA. Neither an Olympic athlete nor an achieving student can generally be said to be obsessed, for there isn’t anything inherently negative to be said about making it to the Olympics or achieving and outstanding GPA. In this light, it seems quite easy to distinguish the two states of dedication and obsession.
Sacrifice and the Mix Up
Where most people get “dedication” and “obsession” mixed up is that they don’t properly understand sacrifice. No, I’m not talking about pagan ceremonies, I’m talking about giving things up in order to pursue something bigger. Both obsession and dedication require sacrifice of some sort. The difference is the overall affect of the sacrifice.
The above mentioned alcoholic and business person can both be said to have given up too much. Achievement in business is not worth children going hungry, and enjoying fine drinks is not worth decrementing one’s source of income. In each of these cases, the sacrifice was excessive.
In the above two examples of dedication, you can bet your bottom dollar that both the athlete and the student had to sacrifice to achieve their goals. For the athlete, the amount of training hours he or she put in probably prevented him or her from pursuing a normal career; he or she probably also couldn’t consume alcohol at social occasions since alcohol would destroy the metabolic state the athlete would need for his or her training. The student mentioned above also had to give things up; he or she probably spent many nights alone in the dorm room studying while his or her friends were out socializing. Both the student and the athlete probably had to miss important family events and other social occasion for the sake of their pursuits. Each had to give things up. The question then becomes, were their sacrifices excessive?
Here is where many people would point fingers at the athlete and student and say, “Oh my, look at how obsessed you are with your goals – look at how much you give up – that’s not healthy.” Most people only see an isolated incident of sacrifice like studying post-structural theory instead of going to see Lord of the Rings, or going a whole year without drinking alcohol so that one’s physical training can be more beneficial (On a side note, one should never feel bad about giving up alcohol). What most people don’t see is the bigger picture.
It is not necessary that the student or the athlete miss ALL social events or give up ALL OTHER things besides their pursuits in order to achieve their goals. High achieving students and exceptional athlete can still have fulfilling social lives and healthy family lives. It is certain that high achieving athletes and students will have very different social and family lives than others might have.
What ever one spends most of one’s time on, one will become good at. Those who spend most of their time socializing and watching movies will become very good at socializing and watching movies, but they might not achieve much else. Because most people are so busy trying to stick with the status quo, they usually don’t understand someone who is trying to live an non-standard life; above standard achievement necessitates a non-standard life, and living a non-standard life will cause some others to be critical of your life.
Part of my story
It has often been the case in my life that other people, friends and family, have misunderstood my involvement in martial arts and physical training. I can remember many summer days when my buddies would call me up and say “hey man, let’s all hang out in town today,” and I would turn them down because I wanted to be working at my instructor’s school or participating in some other martial arts event. They would object with things like, “Dude, life’s not all about Taekwondo,” or even, “hey man, we’re your friends, you should be hanging out with us.” I did hang out with them sometimes, and I have many fond memories of late movie nights and other fun activities with my friends; it was also the case that because of my desire to pursue the path of martial arts, I missed many social gatherings so that I could continue practicing martial arts or further my relationship with my school. Though my friends seemed to understand my passion for martial arts, they seldom seemed to understand why I would continually choose it over other things.
I had similar experiences in college when I got into physical training while at college. While my friends there would be watching a movie at night, I would be in the gym working out. Most of the times they would go out to the bars, I would drink only one drink or would just have water. I was often be called a “party-pooper” or a “lamer,” but I was able to add on fifty pounds of muscle and redefine my physical perception of myself in an incredibly positive way. I would sometimes watch movies with them and even go out drinking with the guys (when I was of age), but in my goals in physical training necessitated me giving up many of those opportunities of hanging out with them. I do not take any joy out of missing social occasions with close friends, but I take a lot of joy from sticking to my path and achieving steps towards my goals.
A seemingly appropriate objection a reader may have raised so far would be that he or she would understand one’s sacrifice given that one is an Olympic athlete or a stellar scholar but the reader may not understand one’s sacrifice if one currently hasn’t achieved something so visible. Someone might say, “You are not a high ranking athlete, so why do you give up so much for your pursuit?” The answer would really be quite simple; generally sacrifice has to be made before an achievement is met, and great achievement generally necessitates giving up much in its stead. A dedicated person is aware that he or she is on a path towards greatness, and that is why he or she works so hard. The dedicated person may not have reached a noticeable point along that path yet, but he or she is traveling it all the same.
A perfect example of a dedicated person who came along a lengthy path of hard work and dedication is Arnold Palmer. Palmer is a golf star from the fifties and sixties who is famous both for his amazing golf ability as well as being one of the first major golf stars to become popular on television when the sport first became televised in the fifties. Though not a martial artist himself, any martial artist can learn about dedication from his story. There is a famous story about Palmer that I will paraphrase as it demonstrates the path of a dedicated person:
During one golf tournament in which Palmer was showing some of his best form, he was approached by a fan that exclaimed to him, “I just love the way you hit a golf ball so beautifully; I wish I could hit a golf ball like you.” Ironically, this somewhat frustrated Palmer, and Palmer is famous for declaring (again I paraphrase)
“Oh you’d love to hit a ball like me would you? Do you want to wake up at dawn every morning and hit a thousand golf balls – everyday hit so many golf balls that your hands bleed – and then clean and bandage your hands and then hit a thousand more golf balls – is that what you’d love to do? Because that’s what it takes to hit golf balls like this, and that is what I did for years.”
Palmer’s frustration is perhaps understandable because most people really don’t understand the kind of dedication it takes to achieve great things. Palmer and other great human beings who achieved great things didn’t do so because some talent happened to fall into their lap. They achieved great things only after agonizing dedication to their endeavors. Most people don’t understand that and so are not always understanding when they see someone on a dedicated path giving up the normal ways of life. Anywhere along Palmer’s training, people could have said to him, “Why do you train so hard – you’re no golf star. Why don’t you just come back with us.” Because Palmer stuck with his dedicated path, he was able to become a golf star of exceptional ability. He could not have done so were it not for his dedication. Most people pay attention only to the moments of glory and not to the hours, days, months, and years of hard work and dedication it took to reach those moments.
Many people mistake a dedicated person for an obsessed person because most people do not understand the path a dedicated person is on. A dedicated person has chosen to do what most people will not – a dedicated person has chosen to forgo the comforts of a normal life so that he or she may pursue his or her dreams and work towards achieving great things therein. Since most people are not willing to do this, most people do not understand a dedicated person giving things up along that path, and so most people are critical of that person; they only see a dedicated person giving up the comforts of a normal life, and they don’t see that person creating the exceptional life that the dedicated person is working towards. If you are not willing to dedicate yourself to your dreams, then at least be understanding of those who are, for if it were not for dedicated persons, all of the greatest innovations in technology, art, philosophy, and culture would never have come about in the first place. Achievement requires dedication and sacrifice; live in that understanding and cherish the path.