I wouldn't normally consider John Waters an oracle of wisdom, but he said something to me eighteen years ago which changed the course of my life.
Eighteen years ago I was a graduate student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
It was my third year--the third of seven I would eventually spend earning my Ph.D. in particle physics.
My advisor would later joke that this was how I squandered my twenties. Some people flounder through their twenties in drug-addled stupors, but I spent mine with my head buried in physics and math books which I never fully understood. Not much different than the drug-addled stupor, really.
The transition from high school to college had been a rude awakening for me, but the one from college to graduate school was even greater.
I don't know how it happened, but I knew next to nothing about physics when I entered graduate school. I wondered how I had managed to get through years of college level physics courses and still feel so clueless.
That is, of course, the story of my life. Each time I begin something new I'm profoundly aware of how little I know. It's crushing and it hurts my head.
But if I have a secret to success it is only this--a ridiculously stubborn refusal to give up. I rarely give up. I suffer through the pain until eventually--suddenly--one day I look back and remember how difficult it used to be.
In the early years of my graduate program it hurt. It hurt a lot. We spent every waking moment trying to solve physics problems someone else before us had already solved and now presented to us as a form of torture called education. There was no world wide web. We were limited to our text books and our wits, which in my case had been greatly dulled by long days and short nights.
I often contemplated the cost of these long days. There was a hunger in me to make something of myself, to achieve something noteworthy and important, but I wondered if the price was worth it. It seemed to me that one could be either well-adjusted or exceptional, but not both--the two were mutually exclusive. I wondered if I would have to choose between being happy and doing something great...and if, perhaps, I had already made that choice.
In spite of the heavy work load, I still managed to find some time for a few things other than physics. The Duke campus was, of course, a place with all sorts of distractions including basketball games, parties and a constant stream of performances and lectures from academics, celebrities and other famous figures.
It turned out that John Waters would be speaking in Page Auditorium. John Waters is the quasi-famous, pencil-moustached director of cult films like Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. He may be most famous for discovering Ricki Lake. And so it turned out he would be speaking one evening at Duke.
His visit was part of a film speakers series--or some such thing--which included, among others, names like John Waters and Ethan Hawke.
At any rate, revulsion was my first thought when I considered seeing John Waters speak. He's always seemed a little creepy to me. I didn't know much about him at that time and I hadn't seen any of his films, but I just couldn't trust his moustache.
Nonetheless, I found myself a few rows back and almost directly in front of the speakers podium in a well lit auditorium. Whether alone as a study break or with others, I can't recall. Neither can I recall the great majority of his speech. I can remember, however, his manner and my feeling. He spoke loosely, off the cuff, with an air of sincerity. He swore a few times which was sparing enough to make him authentic rather than offensive. All of this was a surprise to me.
But then he began to speak about work, about the purpose of life, about why we get up in the morning. He focused my attention as he continued to speak directly to what was on my mind. The happy life versus the exceptional life.
The room faded away as the corners of my vision darkened and I fell through that tunnel which most people see only after death. And then, only he and I inhabited that auditorium. He looked at me as though I were his student--just he and I sitting together, alone, in a large auditorium. He continued to speak to me in his casual way.
After a tantalizing lead up to the secret of life, this is what he said:
"Life is nothing if you're not obsessed."
And it hit me. It hit me hard. Those words still echo in my head.
He went on to make the case that being happy is over-rated. We spend our whole lives working for freedom or money or love or fame.
We say to ourselves "I'll be happy when..." When I have this or have that, I'll be happy. When I have a girlfriend I'll be happy. If only I could be single again, I'd be happy. If I were rich, I'd be happy. If I didn't have so much responsibility and could be a student again, I'd be happy. In the end, all the wishing fades away and means nothing.
He said that what matters is that you live an obsessed life--a life of intentional passion. That you allow yourself to be yourself, not just partly, but completely--no matter what others might do or say--to push relentlessly toward creating your art or learning your craft or loving others more artfully than anyone but you could do.
The journey, the struggle, the expenditure of passion is the measure of your success not the destination, not the money, not the praise, not the person. In the end, none of these will satisfy as completely as you hope.
What I heard that night was that the fantasy I longed for--a life of comfort, of idealized love, of freedom from all responsibility--could never be what I hoped. The choice between happy and exceptional was not only a false choice, but an empty promise.
I realized that no matter what I achieved in the way of money, freedom or love, that they would always seem far away for me. When is enough enough? How much money or love does it take to salve the wounds and longings of the heart?
If we are looking for an external solution, then the answer is always, "A little bit more."
And so, that evening, the twin struggle in me between a longing for the happy life and the desire to do something exceptional was settled.
I realized that a life of obsession was the only one there is--anything else was just a shadow of a life.
If you love, love with abandon in the way only you can and learn better each day how to put your stamp on it. Not for another, but for yourself. If you are a garbage collector, be the best damn garbage collector this whole freaking world has ever known. Find the way, every day, to be obsessed with your life, to live it like there was no tomorrow, like being alive is the biggest lottery you could have ever won.
And if you spend your nights with your nose in physics books while everyone else is out having fun, then do it with abandon and without regret.
Do it because it's what you are doing.
Be present, be obsessed, one day at a time.
Let the "what-ifs" and "if-onlies" fend for themselves--they will surely die without your constant support.
From that day to this one I have never regretted the Friday nights I have spent studying or working in front of my computer.
I write. I create. I live.
For the last eighteen years I have lived a life of obsession whether it was swing dancing six nights a week in Los Angeles, writing software on Friday nights to analyze the stock market, hiking to remote parts of Washington state to take beautiful photographs or meditating every day to discover God.
These activities didn't make me famous or wealthy, but they did give me hope and purpose; they did fill my life with meaning and joy.
I'm still hoping my obsessions will lead to fame and wealth, but it's OK if they don't. I'll keep chasing them. I'll keep hoping.
Following your dreams doesn't always take you where you think it will and it's not always easy, but following your dreams does take you somewhere.
And sometimes that somewhere is greater or more fulfilling than you could have ever imagined when your dream was first conceived.
Don't waste your time longing for "just a little bit more."
Learn to surrender to obsession with what you have now, right in front of you, and you may be surprised what it becomes.