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A Country Built by Obsessives

Author Joshua Kendall argues that compulsiveness is a major force in American history
Joshua Kendall



Rachel Youdelman

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.”

That said, there is also another misconception about obsessives. Business consultants such as Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, argue that they are better suited to following than to leading. Given that they are good organizers, so goes the familiar refrain, they make better CFOs than good CEOs. And that is true for some. But a small sub-set of obsessives—such as the super-achievers I write about—can also be innovators. Ted Williams developed a new approach to hitting. Until he came on the scene in the late 1930s, the typical power hitter was someone like Babe Ruth, who was undisciplined at the plate. Williams turned hitting into a science; in fact, the treatise he wrote after his retirement was called The Science of Hitting. The Red Sox Hall of Famer studied everything; no detail was too small. He analyzed the slope of the batter’s box in all the big league parks; he went to an MIT physics lab to learn about the impact of a bat on a ball. Realizing that a walk is as good as a hit, he refused to swing at any pitch that was even a fraction of an inch off the plate. He was essentially doing sabermetrics a half century before the stats guru, Bill James. Likewise, Estee Lauder forever changed the beauty business. She was obsessed with touching faces; as a little girl, she couldn’t stop putting make-up on her friends. And she introduced the department store mini-makeover, which has been the cornerstone of this industry for the last half century.

Cook: What common themes did you in the childhoods and early careers of the people you profile?

Kendall: Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, in contrast to most other psychiatric disorders, is remarkably consistent throughout the life span. Someone who has it at 5 is very likely to have it at 85. And it tends to arise in response to difficult circumstances early in life. The icons I profile all encountered major stressors in childhood, such as neglect, parental mental illness, severe family discord and medical illness. One of the reasons Ted Williams bonded so intensely with his bat as a boy in San Diego is that neither of his parents was ever around all that much. His mother was a religious zealot, who rode the bus day and night trying to save the town’s drunks and prostitutes. And his father was a semi-employed photographer who was often out carousing. Like Williams, Lindbergh also had parents who were constantly fighting with one another. And rather than reaching out to other people for connection, Lindbergh turned to machines. As a teenager, the “Lone Eagle” had no friends—his mother had to pay neighborhood kids to play with him. His favorite pastime was driving the family’s Model T; at fifteen, he served as the chauffeur for his father, a longtime Congressman from Minnesota. Similarly, by the age of 5, Melvil Dewey—author of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, the 19th century’s premier search engine (the Google of its day)—was already organizing the spices in his mother’s pantry.

For each of these obsessive innovators, the obsessions become a solution to an existential crisis. By turning to his bat, Williams found a way out of his chaotic family life. In contrast, his younger brother, who was short and didn’t possess any athletic talent, became a juvenile delinquent. Dewey’s mother was 42 at the time of his birth; and that was ancient in the mid-19th century. She had little time for him, and whatever bonding he received as a boy came at the hands of an older sister. The love of order is often the child’s way to gain a sense of control in a situation where they have little actual control. Fortunately, for Dewey, he was able to channel his love of order into his vocation. Not only did he organize America’s printed matter, he also helped to found both the American Library Association and the world’s first library school at Columbia University.

Cook: What policy implications does your book have?

Kendall: My book highlights a central problem with current psychiatric classification. At present, the DSM, psychiatry’s bible, focuses only on the downside of particular mental health conditions—such as OCPD. But there is a pressing need for both clinicians and the public to understand that there can also be an upside to being wired a certain way. Those with OCPD, as I have discovered time and time again, happen to have remarkable strengths; they possess enormous drive and persistence and are very detail-oriented. The same goes for those with a related condition—“Aspies” or high-functioning autistics. They too tend to encounter difficulty in interpersonal relationships, but can perform very well in repetitive tasks such as software testing. The challenge that those with such mental illnesses face is not to become more “normal,” but to find a way to channel their obsessionality productively.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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