The idea that there's more to life than an obsession is a hedge. You're hedging against the risk that you're not pursuing anything valuable and failure.

There are many people whose obsessions are useless at best, pernicious at worse. You don't want to look back on your life and realized that you were one of them.

Yet many people who we admire have a single-minded focus. When you're thinking about planning a life there's a question, would it be better if I discovered the single thing I cared most about and pursued it like nothing else matters?

The fictional personification of this is Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. He cares about architecture in a way that's nearly inhumane. His craft is spiritual. He lives a spartan, solitary life in pursuit of the building something grand. Destroying buildings if they don't meet his standards. We admire his conviction and grandness.

I don't think this life is for most of us. But when one's planning out the shape of a life, it's useful to ask, why not? After all, if you've found what's most worth pursuing, why not be devoted to it?

We live pursuing a broad range of values: social, artistic, hedonic, familial, intellectual, and so on. The obsessed person narrows that range to a specific value and they invest in it as if it were the only thing to invest in. They would work on it, even if there was no one else on the planet. Because they focus on a single value, their lives are lopsided.

The singleminded obsessive risks neglecting essential ingredients of life that make it worthwhile. What are these ingredients? The majority of the answer is mundane and familiar. Having friends, family, health, autonomy. There are a few near universal human goods that make up a good life. Religious traditions to psychologists will include a standard list.

Yet if there's anything we can learn the obsessives, it's that there are real tradeoffs. All of us face decisions between career, family, friends, and our own pursuits. It's better to reflect and decide, then have them be chosen for us.

So how does obsession fit into the shape of a life? The primary thing going for it is that our world rewards single minded focus. This is also its largest cost.

The biggest rewards in mass societies go to those who pursue grand goals single-mindedly. This usually requires an unbalanced life. In many fields, the price of trying to get into the big leagues is neglect of self, health, partner, children, and friends.

Ronald Nesse

Most of us aren't Howard Roark. But on the margin, many of us could move in that direction. You're already set up for a meaningful life with the basic material and social fabric. You'll need to work at it and be deliberate about friendships, but I'm optimistic that most people in the world can achieve this. Add to this life an obsession, something radical, something over the top. Put serious investment into denting a corner of the world for good. Be ambitious.

Nassim Taleb popularized the idea of barbell strategies. A barbell has two weights on the side. What you want to be doing is a lot of the ordinary and some of the very risky and uncertain. Nothing in between. For investing, hold low return, safe assets and risky assets. For exercise, walk and deadlift. I don't know if that's how one should be exercising, but perhaps it's how one should be living. On one side, invest in what we know is valuable. On the other side, take serious risks. Don't make decisions that will risk ruining either side.

Howard Roark ends up with social recognition and the girl in the end. This is revealing. It isn't just the obsessive side of his life that we find admirable.