Why Obsession Often Leads to Excellence

In this article I’ll discuss how developing an obsession in photography, as well as other hobbies/professions, are key ingredients to achieving excellence.

Defining ‘Obsession’

Semantically-speaking, Webster’s dictionary, defines ‘obsession’ as:

a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadlycompelling motivation 

  • an obsession with profits
  • has an obsession with gambling

2something that causes an obsession 

  • Losing weight can be an obsession that results in the avoidance of certain foods.”

Observation: Interestingly, the above definition characterises an obsession almost like a disease, particularly with such words as “disturbing”, “unreasonable”. I checked other sources and their definitions are similar – a negative reflection of society’s attitude.

‘You’re SO Obsessed!’

Has anybody ever said those toxic words to you? If so, would you agree with me how annoying it sounds? My point is, why does society generally view obsession in such a negative light?

Perhaps it’s because obsession is a trait that many regard as unhealthy. The following is a non-exhaustive list of unhealthy traits/addictions associated with an obsession:

  • Workaholics
  • OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
  • Food addiction
  • Drugs addiction, including opioids
  • Exercise addiction
  • Facebook addiction
  • Sex addiction
  • Selfie addiction
Drugs mix
Granted, anything done in excess can be unhealthy and lead to serious mental, physical, legal and relationship issues.

The media, including 1000s of self-help books and advertising, hammer away that we must try to ‘achieve balance’ in order to be healthy, productive and  ultimately: happy. If only it were that simple. Obsession somehow implies an imbalance which must be fixed at all costs.

  • Imbalance? Yes.
  • Needs to be fixed? Hell no (most of the time).
Source: http://www.thebagforum.com/kate-spade-bags/25250-all-work-no-play-makes-jack-dull-boy-lanyard-wallet-kate-spade-new-york.html

Just Act Normal

Well, it depends on where you live but there’s a general attitude to conform and follow the rules. The Dutch have an interesting saying:

Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg‘, which translates to ‘Just act normal and you’ll be crazy enough’.

This a reminder of their more simple and Calvinist not-too-distance past, as well as present in the Dutch Bible Belt. Two huge exceptions to ‘acting normally’ are during King’s day in Amsterdam and Bloemencorso – Bulbflower Parade (below).

Embracing Healthy Obsessions

Those who are perceived as obsessed with their hobbies/work are sometimes regarded as “outcasts”, “weirdos”, “eccentrics”, even troubled. Maybe it’s the world that’s weird and they’re normal. An obsession to a craft is nothing to be ashamed about, just the opposite.

Focusing now on the positive benefits of being ‘workaholic obsessed’, to truly succeed, one has to devote all the conscious and subconscious energy and thoughts to the mindset of success in that particular craft. It’s the oxygen that fuels the flame.

‘Haters’ will try hard to extinguish that flame and it’s your job to keep it burning strong, big enough for everybody to notice. I’ve had my fair of haters on photography forums and the way I choose to deal with it is with humour and professionalism.

Extreme Right-Wing English Defence League (EDF) supporters stage
Knowing how to deal with negativity is crucial to maintain the focus on achieving your goals.

Cycling in the Dutch Winter

Whilst living in the Netherlands (2011-2014), I embarked on numerous cycling adventures. Suddenly, I was determined to the idea of capturing a dramatic fine art shot of a specific wooden windmill I had cycled past a few months earlier.

No easy task waking up in the crack of dawn in the middle of the cold Dutch winter to cycle three hours away with the risk the light wouldn’t even be good enough!

Six hours later, it was a wrap! Here’s my best shot from the trip:

Dutch windmill
A bit cliche but going the extra mile paid off – in this case, waiting hours in the freezing cold for an ideal lighting situation!

Cheers for those crazy ones that brought us amazing achievements!

The percentage of individuals that achieve huge success without obsession are few. For the vast majority, it requires a huge amount of dedication and sacrifice.

Some people are naturally gifted.  Source: http://ew.com/article/2015/05/13/bradley-cooper-limitless/
Cheers to the second group!

Throughout history, there are records of individuals that achieved greatness by their relentless obsession to their craft, even when facing overwhelming odds and multiple failures. Their work-ethic has brought about great advances in art, science, technology and humanity. In fact, you’re reading this on a laptop or mobile phone because of the obsession of some of society’s ‘outcasts’. Revenge of the 70s and 80s nerds!

Source: http://www.keepinspiring.me/10-habits-of-ultra-successful-people-the-secret-sauce-to-success/

Avoiding some known examples of great achievers such as: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, I’ll focus on two photographers who dedicate themselves obsessively to their craft.

Platon Antoniou – Portrait Photographer

Even if you’ve never heard of Platon Antoniou, you’ve likely seen his work on multiple covers of Time Magazine, where he’s photographed famous politicians including Bill Clinton, Vladmir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hugo Chavez, as well as famous actors.

Suffering from dyslexia as a child meant he had to “work six times harder” to achieve good exam results. Nowadays, he admits to being a “restless workaholic”.

I’ve read and watched about his meticulous workflow, where his goal is to capture the subject’s soul as elaborated in his following quote:

“Power is a mirage. These photos are about capturing the global administration that manages our lives. I wanted to get into their eyes, photograph them at a human level, not on a podium.

I wanted to reveal something of their inner spirit. All these dudes sit on the toilet once a day, they all suffer heartache, have joy, share tenderness – even the bad ones.” – Platon Antoniou

More recently, Antoniou went from photographing the most powerful to the least powerful. I found his most powerful work was photographing rape victims of the Congo conflict (1998 – 2003) – YouTube video link here on his presentation at the World Economic Forum entitled ‘The Invisible Conflict’.

platon antoniou

Sebastiao Salgado – Photojournalist

Fellow-Brazilian, monochrome Photojournalist, Sebastião Salgado is my idol.  He dedicated year-long projects to beautifully capture the often tragic human side of a global story. Salgado admits that capturing so much suffering nearly killed him and he had to step away from this type of photojournalism.

Most recently, he is an advocate for environmental causes, arguing that globalisation is having a massive adverse impact on local economies, cultures and environments.

The following is a compilation of some of his amazing works along his career:

I just watched for the fourth time the inspiring photo-documentary, Salt of the Earth. Here’s the trailer on YouTube. I wrote a detailed review of the documentary and explained how Salgado has personally influenced my work – link to the blog post.

The greatest heroes of all

Being a freelance war photographer is one of the riskiest jobs in the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, a total of 1,197 journalists have been violently killed trying to capture the truth.

Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2527992/Teenage-photographer-haunting-images-native-Syria-circulated-world-killed-capturing-battle-rebel-regime-forces-hospital.html

Strong work ethic leads to greatness

Will Smith, here portraying the protagonist in Pursuit of Happyness…an inspirational story. Source: http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/the-pursuit-of-happyness/internship-interview

Will Smith’s impressive work ethic is something I would like to share. In an interview, he was asked, “Why does he think he has been so successful?”

His reply pretty much sums up this blog post:

“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. And where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic. You know, while the other guy’s sleeping? I’m working. While the other guy’s eatin’? I’m working. While the other guy’s making love, I mean, I’m making love, too. But I’m working really hard at it.” – Will Smith

Final Thoughts

Total fixation to achievement is a common theme among the top 1% in every field of endeavour. These individuals even place the highest priority on success than family, relationships and their health (many die young).

A bit cliche but a relevant metaphor. Success is like an iceberg since everyone of us can see the outcome only at the tip. Makes me wonder the sorts of sacrifices that Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel had to make to advance the human condition.  

Source: https://ithemes.com/2015/07/21/success-is-an-iceberg/


How do you stay motivated, even when times get tough? I’m curious to know so please comment below.

Now, back to work as I have much to achieve in a short time!



  1. In my opinion. it’s got to be that crazy “lock yourself in your room and don’t leave until you have whatever answer to a question you’re searching”. Those yield great achievements, much to the detriment of the subject’s health and relationships.

    My Dutch winter example must be a joke compared to the winters in Saskatchewan, capturing those trains…now that’s real obsession…what’s the coldest you’ve ever experienced? How do you survive haha


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