How does anyone sustain interest in a single thing for years at a time?
I recently watched “Free Solo,” the National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s world-record-setting climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
In spite of the knowledge that he succeeds and doesn’t get permanently injured or die, watching it was very emotional for me. I can’t readily describe the mix of feelings I had while watching his solo ascent. Some combination of awe, fear, and confusion.
The awe and the fear are obvious enough; it was an incredible physical feat with the possibility of certain death, my hands were sweating the entire time just watching it.
The confusion comes up when I think about the discipline and devotion to the act that made it possible. What does that feel like? It’s completely foreign to me.
My best friend for over 20 years has been traveling around the country with his daughter making absurdly large landscape photographs. They started just before the pandemic hit and have been at it ever since.
Part of his goal is to take his daughter to every US national park before she turns 18, which is a very cool—and ambitious—mission. But the photography thing is just a hobby; he sells one now and then, but he has a full-time day job and mainly pursues the photography for fun.
How does one stay interested in getting up before dawn to shoot a sunrise for five years? Or even two years?
I went to high school with a dude who is really into Star Wars. Like really into it. Saw all the movies, read probably hundreds of books published within the franchise (canon and otherwise). He builds every Lego Star Wars “Creator” set that comes out (I think he has two Imperial Star Destroyers), and watches every Star Wars show that they make.
To be clear, I’m not throwing shade here. Disney bought Star Wars because it’s wildly, wildly popular, and nobody should feel any shame for loving the shit out of it. I also like Star Wars! The Mandalorian was a great show that my wife and I both enjoyed.
But… I have trouble imagining what it’s like to be that committed to that one thing. As much as I enjoy Star Wars, and Lego, and science fiction in general, I can’t fathom what it feels like to have that level of devotion.
I really don’t mean to come across as unappreciative or condescending here. I actually envy my friends’ abilities to pour themselves into something that brings them continuous, long-term joy and satisfaction. It’s just that I don’t understand it.
There’s something about how I experience the world that makes me flit from one thing to another, pausing only long enough to reach some self-satisfying level of proficiency before moving on. I’ve done this for so many things, even hard things, but eventually I am drawn away. Things I’ve pursued include:
Fountain pens (I own more than 10)
Mechanical watches (I’m embarrassed to say more)
3D modeling in Blender
Generative art in Processing and processing.js
Eurorack modular synthesis (only emulated, though; dodged that bullet!)
Video editing (even bought a license for Resolve Studio)
I should point out that by “mechanical watches” and “fountain pens,” I don’t just mean that I went on Amazon and bought some. Oh, no, I fell down the rabbit hole of the styles and distinctions, inner workings, respected brands and their histories, steeped myself in the various Reddit communities, and so on.
For those months when I was really into fountain pens, for example, you’d think “this guy is totally obsessed with fountain pens.” All I did was try new ink samples and watch YouTube videos about handmade pens and use different notebooks (LEUCHTTURM1917 are the best, by the way).
But none of those (or anything else, really) has been my lodestone, drawing me back time and again, to continue to go deeper and further with it. I’m quite satisfied with how much I know about Omega’s “co-axial escapement,” or what it means to route “control voltage” in a Eurorack system.
I don’t hunger for more.
I didn’t put photography or writing on the list. Those are as close as I’ve come to interests that persist. But even with writing, I don’t feel a draw toward it every day or even every week (observe the sporadic post history here for context).
There was a time when I was taking photography very seriously. Traveling, taking thousands of photographs, printing and framing them, and writing about it constantly, but even within that broad interest, I changed cameras, changed lenses, and became temporarily enamored with various techniques like long exposures, light painting, and so on.
Am I confusing discipline and persistence with joy?
I don’t know what any of this actually means, or if it’s even important, but it felt like a topic I should try to write about to help myself to try to understand it.
If any of this feels familiar to you, I’d love to hear about it.
What are your obsessions?