Thomas Jefferson, the third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, kept detailed accounts to track every penny he spent. Steve Jobs was famously fastidious about the cleanliness of his factories, flying into rages when he found too much dust. In a new book, America’s Obsessives, author Joshua Kendall argues that obsessive compulsive personality disorder has shaped many great figures who have in turn shaped our country. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Gareth Cook: How did you first become interested in obsession as a historical force?
Joshua Kendall: I had written two biographies of obsessive wordsmiths—one on Peter Mark Roget, the creator of the Thesaurus and one on Noah Webster, the author of America’s first dictionary. In examining their lives, I noticed how obsessionality—a love of rules, order, details, cleanliness and lists—could be a big asset for a lexicographer. And that link is clear. If you love sitting in a room for hours at a time compiling word lists, chances are that you have what it takes to write a good dictionary. But as I was completing the Webster bio, I began reading Jefferson’s letters and diaries—an arch Federalist, Webster was a fierce political enemy of our third President—and saw that Jefferson, too, was a list-maker. Jefferson kept track of every cent he ever spent in his copious account books; as president, he also drew up a mega-chart of all the vegetable markets in Washington, DC. It was then that I had an “aha moment;” I began to sense that many movers and shakers in various fields—from politics to information technology to science and sports—were obsessives. Besides Jefferson, my book features six other icons, including Henry Heinz of ketchup fame, Charles Lindbergh, beauty tycoon Estee Lauder and the Boston Red Sox superstar, Ted Williams.
I want to start a national conversation about how this character type is well suited to superior achievement. And I also seek to inject the element of irrationality into our understanding of obsession. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it takes “10,000 hours” of practice for someone like Bill Gates to become a computer whiz in high school. But obsessionality often involves more than just doing the same thing over and over again; in its clinical sense—the way the American Psychiatric Association defines it in the DSM—it goes hand-in-glove with certain quirks. Steve Jobs, whom I discuss in my prologue, was a cleanliness nut. Back in the 1980s, he used to don white gloves and do frequent dust checks on the floor of the Apple factory. And whenever he saw a few specks, he would yell at his plant manager to clean them up. Jobs’s rationale was that if his company didn’t have the discipline to keep everything spic and span, it wouldn’t be able to design “insanely great products.” It’s ironic that the most successful obsessives—who, by definition, love control—tend to be a little bit out of control. But somehow this eccentric behavior is often crucial to helping them attain their lofty goals.
Cook: There are people who are debilitated by obsessive thoughts. Can you explain what precisely you mean by obsessive, and explain when it can have a positive influence?
Kendall: The term obsessive is thrown around a lot. Many people will say, “Oh, I have to clean up my kitchen now because I have a little OCD.” But by “obsessive,” I don’t mean people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD can be incapacitating, and those who suffer from this disorder are unlikely to start Apple or fly across the Atlantic on a piece of wood like Charles Lindbergh. These people are haunted by thoughts that just won’t go away; someone with OCD might be constantly worried that the house will burn down; as a result, he or she might be afraid to go out even after checking a thousand times that the burner on the stove is off. The icons covered in my book are saddled (or blessed) with a related condition called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). While the obsessions and compulsions in both disorders can revolve around the same things—such as cleanliness or order—OCD is an anxiety disorder and OCPD is a character disorder. Rather being impaired by their intrusive thoughts, those with OCPD celebrate them. Like Steve Jobs, Henry Heinz prided himself on his company’s clean factory; for decades, his plant in Pittsburgh was a must-see destination for tourists. My icons were productive obsessives; they found a way to channel that which they couldn’t stop thinking about into some spectacular achievement. As a boy, Ted Williams thought of nothing else but hitting. As he once said, “When I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I was practicing my swing.”