Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions

Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions

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by Eric Maisel PhD, Ann Maisel

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It’s true: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Yet that’s what we do when we spend our weekend — and neurons — reliving a workplace squabble, spend a family visit chewing over childhood issues, or spend hours beating ourselves up when someone brings one of our own long-held (but never worked on) ideas to fruition. This kind of obsessing gets


It’s true: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Yet that’s what we do when we spend our weekend — and neurons — reliving a workplace squabble, spend a family visit chewing over childhood issues, or spend hours beating ourselves up when someone brings one of our own long-held (but never worked on) ideas to fruition. This kind of obsessing gets us, like a hamster on a wheel, nowhere. But as noted creativity expert Eric Maisel asserts, obsessing productively leads to fulfillment rather than frustration. A productive obsession, whether an idea for a novel, a business, or a vaccine, is chosen deliberately and pursued with determination. In this provocative, practical guide, Maisel coaches you to use the tendency to obsess to your creative advantage, fulfilling both your promise and your promises to yourself.

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Publishers Weekly
Eric Maisel (Coaching the Artist Within), a creativity coach and columnist, and wife Ann Maisel (What Would Your Character Do?) have collaborated on a self-help book with an intriguing twist: that the right kind of "productive" obsession is not only desirable but an essential feature of creativity. To lend credibility to their claim the Maisels reference research into consciousness that suggests the cerebral cortex contains dynamic cooperatives of neurons which may lay the foundation for "a productive obsession that is a large neuronal gestalt of long duration - a big idea that lasts a long time." In answer to the criticism that any obsession might be dangerous, the Maisels acknowledge that this possibility hasn't been thoroughly investigated but believe the gains outweigh any potential negatives. The process of nurturing productive obsessions, the authors believe, is at the heart of how we value life and find purpose. It goes beyond simple stimulation, neat ideas, or interesting hobbies. By "investing meaning," in our ideas, we can move from mere interest to "the meaningfulness of authentic engagement." All too often people overlook the basics of a productive life, distracted by multitasking, marketing, and information overload. With this provocative departure from the usual lifestyle manual, the Maisels are out to break us of those tendencies.
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Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions

By Eric Maisel, Ann Maisel

New World Library

Copyright © 2010 Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-962-7


The Logic of Brainstorms

To be the ethical, engaged, creative, successful, and lively human being you intend to be, you need your brain. But it is not enough to possess a perfectly good brain — you must also use it. If you don't use your brain you will find yourself trapped in trivialities, condemned to impulsivity, led around by anxiety, and duller and sadder than you have any need to be. The cliché is true: your mind is a terrible thing to waste.

People waste their brains. They allow themselves to worry about next to nothing, wasting neurons. They allow themselves to grow numb with distractions, wasting neurons. They allow themselves to be ruled by a perpetual to-do list, running from errand to chore to chore to errand, wasting neurons. Because they have not trained themselves to aim their brain in the direction of rich and rewarding ideas, ideas worth the wholesale enlistment of neurons, they stay mired in the mental equivalent of a rat race, spending their neuronal capital on spinning hamster wheels.

Our culture applauds this brain abdication. It needs you to care about the latest movie, the latest gadget, the latest sermon, the latest investment opportunity. Every aspect of our culture has something to sell you and needs to grab your attention. Marketers do not want you to be thinking too strenuously about your budding symphony or your scientific research and miss their sales pitch. What if you didn't answer your phone when it rang? How could they telemarket? What if you didn't check your email every few minutes? What good would their banner ads do? Your brainstorms are dollars out of their pockets.

This antipathy to rich thinking occurs at home, at school, among friends, and even with your mate. Parents tell you to clean your room, not to create your own cosmology myths. Teachers tell you to do math this hour and history the next, not to turn your brain over to a magnificent obsession. Friends ask you to shop, not to think; to play cards, not to think; to join them at a hot new restaurant, not to think; to watch a can't-miss television show, not to think. Your wife doesn't say, "Honey, let's spend a few hours thinking!" Your husband doesn't ask, "Dear, what big ideas are you working on?" Indeed, if it could be put to a vote, thinking might well be outlawed. Expect such a proposition on your ballot soon.

The good news is that you can jump off this bandwagon and opt for brainstorms. For thousand of years, our wisest philosophers have asserted that the trick to creating an authentic life is taking charge of how you use your brain. It is up to you whether you will dumb yourself down or smarten yourself up. If you opt to smarten yourself up by cultivating rich ideas with weight and worth, you will get to make meaning in ways that few people experience. The person next to you may think that the epitome of brain powering is a sharp game of bridge or a rousing afternoon with a crossword puzzle. You will discover that real brain power is holding a rich idea over time as you productively obsess your novel into existence, build your remarkable business, or aid in the understanding of some profound scientific puzzle.

You learn to opt for brainstorms, for big thinking over time, and by doing so you fulfill your promise — and your promises to yourself. An idea for a novel sparks your imagination and, because you let it, it turns into a brainstorm. An idea for an Internet business wakes you up in the middle of the night and, because you let it, it turns into a brainstorm. A scientific problem grips you and, because you let it, it turns into a brainstorm. A brainstorm is the full activation of your neuronal forces, an activation in support of an idea that you intend to cherish and elaborate, so powerful that it amounts to a productive obsession. You work on it in the mind, by thinking, and you work on it in actuality, by actually writing, by actually running for office, by actually launching your business.

Do these brainstorms come with a money-back guarantee? Yes and no. What you are not guaranteed are successful results. You might, for example, chew on a scientific puzzle for a decade and never solve it. Albert Einstein explained, "I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right." Not even that hundredth time is guaranteed you. All that you are guaranteed from a life of brainstorms is the possibility of successes — which you never would have achieved if you had avoided thinking — and pride from having lived up to your expectations for yourself. And that's everything.

Thinking is destiny. The theologian Tryon Edwards put it this way: "Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in actions; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny." As you think, so you live. If you think about nothing, it would hardly be a surprise if you complained about feeling empty and failed to rise to most occasions. If you keep your thinking as small as possible, you will probably feel and act small. If you demand that your brain produce nothing but conventional thoughts, how can you be anything but conventional? If your idea of flexing your mind is to spin fantasies, play word games, second-guess your choices, or worry endlessly, I can picture your destiny. Can't you? Isn't it crystal clear that how you use your mind determines who you are and how you lead your life?

Live up a storm. A brainstorm. Or rather, a series of brainstorms: one after another, season after season, year after year. When you engage your mind with an idea ripe enough to drip juice, large enough to fill an auditorium, fascinating enough to seduce, gripping enough to hold you enthralled, you scoot boredom out the door, make sense of your days, and live your reasons for being. In a café across town, two students may be merrily debating the meaning of life; you are making your meaning. In a skyscraper across town, two marketers may be plotting how to grab your attention; you are safe and secure, inoculated by virtue of your brainstorm. You are too busy and engrossed to notice even your own misgivings about the universe. You have bitten into something; your own chewing drowns out the world's chatter.

It is a platitude that the average brain is not used well or often enough. This truth tends to elicit a smile, a nod, and a wink. We seem happy to collude in the idea that it is fine for brains to work at only a small percentage of their capacity, just as it is fine that workers slack off as soon as the boss disappears. You, however, may not want to take part in this antibrain conspiracy. You may see the intimate connection between brainstorms and personal meaning: that to make the meaning you intend to make, you must use more of your brain. I hope that you will vote for brainstorms. It is their light that illuminates the darkness and their fire that warms the human heart.


Where will your productive obsession take you? It's possible that having the time, the mental space, or the newly embraced inclination to tap into your immediate environs will lead you to make a major contribution to your community. Take, for example, Stanley Cogan, who, according to Sarah Kershaw writing in the New York Times, became president of the Queens Historical Society "after a decade of digging through old graveyards in Queens, piecing together crumbling tombstones and peering at fieldstones scrawled with faded letters."

Dr. Cogan, who spent his professional life in schools, teaching and leading, decided upon his retirement to focus on unearthing the history of Queens buried along with the departed in the borough's family cemeteries. He is motivated, he says, by his desire to bring back to life "some of the borough's earliest settlers, many of whose names — and gravestones — have long been forgotten."

Over time, your commitment to pursuing your obsession and making your work public might, as it has for Stanley Cogan, not only garner you the personal satisfaction that comes with doing work that matters but also add a new, meaningful facet to your self-identity. Maybe you'll become obsessed with orchids, typefaces, birds, insects, or the tides: these are among the productive obsessions you'll encounter as we proceed. Maybe you'll obsess symphonies into existence, or maybe you'll solve your everyday problems. What brainstorms will you create? Aren't you curious to find out?


Putting Your Brain into Gear

I'm suggesting that you choose your obsessions, rather than letting them choose you, and that you move closer to your goals by learning how to productively obsess. You create worthy obsessions that you chew on, struggle with, and love, and these serial productive obsessions become the central tool you use to manifest your potential and realize your dreams.

Rather than thinking about a million things — which amounts to thinking about nothing — and maintaining only a low-level interest in and enthusiasm about life, you announce to your brain that you have a fine use for it and that you intend to move it into a higher gear. Your brain is an engine meant to perform in that higher gear and, having been waiting for your invitation, it will respond beautifully.

Most of our obsessions are not of our own choosing and do not serve us. They arise because we are anxious creatures, and our unproductive thoughts cycle repeatedly to the beat of our anxiety. Against our will, we obsess about the indignity of getting older, about changing our partner's supercilious attitude, about reconciling with a hostile parent, about catching a dreaded disease, about securing our next drink. We obsess about some trivial matter at work and, that matter having been resolved, we obsess about the next trivial matter. We obsess about things that we want to have happen, like winning the lottery, and about things that we don't want to have happen, like getting wrinkles. Our mind, which ought to be ours, gets stolen away by anxiety thieves.

Even if they do not have what's known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, many people are driven by anxiety to obsess in unproductive ways. Their unwanted, intrusive thoughts — the textbook symptom of obsession — often lead them to compulsive behaviors such as searching endlessly for youth enhancers, washing their hands raw, drinking alcoholically, or never really leaving their job at the office. Obsessive thoughts do not always lead to compulsive behaviors, but they regularly do, so regularly that the two ideas have become joined as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

These are unproductive obsessions — they do not serve us. They waste our precious time; occupy our finite neurons, robbing us of their availability; and pressure us to behave compulsively in ways that do us a great self-disservice. Anxiety fuels these obsessions, and the effort to relieve our anxiety leads us to pointless, questionable, or dangerous behaviors intended to quiet our nerves and banish the anxiety. In addition to our unproductive obsessing, our own nervous system puts us under enormous pressure and produces all sorts of unhappy effects. We become hypervigilant, easily startled, prone to opportunistic illnesses, unable to sleep, or easily fatigued. Anxiety throws us a party of problems, with unproductive obsessions the guest of honor.

This happens because of the sort of creatures we are. We have evolved with prominent bits of an ancient brain and prominent bits of a modern brain, survival instincts and a moral apparatus, primitive appetites and subtle consciousness. We are the sort of creature that can conjure worry from the look of the sky, make a choice between surviving at all costs or laying down our life for a cause, eat too many peanuts one minute and compose a haunting love song the next, and in countless curious ways contradict and confuse ourselves. Fueled by our pumping heart and our racing mind, we are pressured to obsess unproductively, or, if we can get a grip on our mind, to obsess productively.

Even though productive obsessions are rarer than unproductive ones, they indubitably exist. In clinical practice, where the word obsession is defined as an inappropriate, unwanted, intrusive, recurrent thought, the spotlight has naturally focused on unproductive or negative obsessions that cause pain and misery. By focusing there, mental health professionals have talked themselves out of the chance to examine the important differences between productive obsessions and unproductive ones. In short, they have defined away the possibility that some obsessions might be desirable.

In 1877 the German psychiatrist Karl Westphal defined obsession this way: "Obsessions are thoughts which come to the foreground of consciousness in spite of and contrary to the will of the patient, and which he is unable to suppress although he recognizes them as abnormal and not characteristic of himself." If only Westphal had called these particular intrusive thoughts "negative obsessions" or "unproductive obsessions," the door might have remained open for clinicians to learn about — and ultimately advocate for — productive obsessions.

Clinicians label all obsessions as negative by definition. In real life, however, people regularly experience other sorts of obsessions that not only serve them beautifully but also constitute an essential part of their effort to make personal meaning. An idea for a novel arises in them, and they begin to obsess about it. The problem of how to get libraries funded in third world countries vexes them, and they obsess about an answer. An issue like freedom consumes them, and they obsess documents like the Bill of Rights into existence.

It is fair to call these genuine obsessions rather than mere interests or even passions, because of the internal pressure generated. When a person really bites into a mental task, she generates a demand: she suddenly demands of herself that she produce this novel, invention, or symphony, that she find this vaccine or solve that riddle in higher mathematics, that she turn her idea into some appropriate reality. A demand is created that is fueled by her need to make personal meaning. This demand amounts to real pressure, as real as any pressure a human being can generate. One moment she is idly weeding the garden; the next moment an idea for a screenplay strikes and she feels compelled to drop everything and get to work.

Whether or not she would consciously put it this way, a certain calculation, culminating in a decision, has occurred in her brain. She has calculated that this screenplay matters. She has decided that this is one of the activities that will define her time on earth and that has the potential to make her feel proud of herself. It is that big a thing; and with that bigness come pressure and a real measure of discomfort. This pressure, a combination of excitement at having discovered something worth doing, turmoil as thoughts collide and ideas morph, and fear of not succeeding, can cause sleepless nights, irritability, chewed fingernails — and also great satisfaction and moments of pure bliss.

This pressure may feel unbearable at times, but it is the logical consequence of turning ourselves over to a pressing existential demand. A storm is created in the brain as meaning is sparked, passions inflamed, and anxieties stoked. It suddenly matters that we write our novel or aid in freeing a subjugated people; and when something matters, the mind engages and the body revs up. We have no choice but to live with this pressure. If the thought is of our own choosing, if it connects to our passions, interests, and existential needs, if it is our best guess as to how we should take responsibility for our freedom, then we embrace the subsequent pressure, endure it, and do our work.

Many people dream of meeting their meaning needs without having to risk a brainstorm. They hope that by "emptying their mind" or "just being" they can make sufficient meaning. They cross their fingers that they can pursue some interest with only mild energy and occasional attention and reap sufficient meaning benefits. They prefer doing "just enough" rather than taking the lead, they shut themselves down when they find themselves on the verge of a fiery pursuit, they back away from hard intellectual tasks and from projects that they fear will tax them. They know that they are not doing enough to support personal meaning — and that knowledge makes them blue — but they have decided, more or less subconsciously, that it is better to be safe than stirred up.


Excerpted from Brainstorm by Eric Maisel, Ann Maisel. Copyright © 2010 Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, Ten Zen Seconds, A Writer’s San Francisco, and A Writer’s Paris. A columnist for Art Calendar magazine, Maisel is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and workshops nationally and internationally. Maisel holds undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, master’s degrees in counseling and creative writing, and a doctorate in counseling psychology. He is also a California-licensed marriage and family therapist. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit to learn more about Dr. Maisel, or drop him a line at To learn about his innovative breathing-and-thinking techniques, visit
Ann Maisel is a former librarian, English teacher, and school administrator who is now engaged in researching the productive obsessions of historical and contemporary figures. She coauthored, with her husband, Eric, What Would Your Character Do?, a collection of personality quizzes for fiction writers to use as they develop their characters. Her productive obsessions have included reading and teaching world literature and playing with clay. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

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Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Richard_Szponder More than 1 year ago
In Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, Eric and Ann Maisel suggest that obsessing over an idea can be healthy, if the idea is related to creativity. Based in psychology, Brainstorm suggests that we waste too much time and energy on unproductive thoughts, and if we force those thoughts out of our brains while at the same time focusing on creative ideas, the possibilities are endless. Brainstorm is highly theoretical in that it very frequently discusses human potential in ideas and concepts that seem very possible. However, it offers little to no practical application of the concepts. The book's ideas are primarily demonstrated by quotes from individuals who have participated in the Maisels' productive obsession groups, but very frequently is there any explanation as to how any of these individuals achieved their results. The most practical help within the book are the chapters on determining what is productive versus non-productive and how to choose a productive obsession that is worthy of your heart's strongest desires. Each chapter concludes with a real-life example of a creative individual, famous or not, who succeeded in conquering the boundaries and bringing new ideas to fruition. Another important chapter in the book explains to the reader that creativity is not necessarily about the end product by rather about appreciating the journey along the way. Focusing too heavily on the end product can impede the natural twists and turns that creativity takes along the way. Perhaps the end product will be quite different from what the individual set out to initially create. And perhaps it will be much more extraordinary. Without the practical application explaining just how to get to these stages of creative awakening, the book leaves the reader saying something along the lines of, "That's great, and I believe what the authors are saying. But how do I get there?" The book is also based in science rather than spirituality. So those creative types who believe creativity is strongly linked to a higher power or creative flow of energy in the universe may find this book dry and unemotional. For most artists and creative types, the emotion that comes with creativity is one of the highlights of the journey. Thinking of creativity as strictly scientific without any divine intervention impedes the artist and leaves him asking, "Then what's the point?" Brainstorm is worth reading and adding to a library of books on creative inspiration. However, it is much less inspiring than other books, like The Artist's Way, for example. For practical examples and real-life how-to exercises, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron would be much more worthwhile investment, as it truly helps someone get out of a creative slump, deal with the issues related to blocked creativity, and move forward into a creative existence.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GertrudefromMN More than 1 year ago
Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions by Eric and Ann Maisel. Right away, the authors make a big promise. "If you take my suggestions and accept my challenges, you'll embark on a journey more amazing than any you could contrive by land, sea or air." Does the book deliver? I say yes. The book shows how using the power of "productive obsession" can overcome internal resistance and enable you to use the power of your brain to live more fully and do more. Productive obsessions stir up the mind. You choose your PO to match your desires, dreams, goals and ambitions; one that taps into your natural abilities, interests and talents. And dream big, stretch your horizons and go all out by allowing your brain to explore the ideas and projects that have habitually been pushed aside. This will lead you to find fulfillment and purpose and thus experience a greater sense of well-being. Chapters are short. The book is a quick read and organized to show how the PO process works while including real-life examples using testimonials from groups of participants who allowed their brains to following a nagging, recurring need. Overall, their end results trend toward fulfillment in the form of tangible results and increased happiness. The exercise of productive obsessing opened a new world of possibilities enabling participants to express their authentic selves. If you can get past the initial chapters which delve into the study of psychology and give some context for the scientific basis of the book, then you'll be able to finish the book. If it weren't for this and the odd chapter criticizing public school education, I'd give the book five stars. I found them distracting and of little value to the overall theme and tone. Bottom line: This book is about being authentic which leads to happiness. If you have a passion for cultivating daisies, cooking with red wine, publishing poetry, building a business, writing a thesis, then go ahead, allow your brain to get busy and get happy and go for big and bold expressions of your obsession! I recommend the book to anyone who is curious about making more of their life. The authors have created a simple roadmap to guide the reader through this thought- and action-changing plan. Also consult this article in the June 2010 issue of Psychology Today for more insight.