How To Turn Your Obsession Into Success, According To These Famous Thought Leaders

From fitness to copy-editing, here’s how specialization helped propel their careers and happiness.

While “obsession” can bear negative connotations, many inspirational texts have begun to encourage (healthy) obsession to master your interests for maximum benefit. Think of it as a fire — the more you feed it, the bigger and hotter it gets. Apply this to anything from language goals to career objectives, and you’ll soon have paved your own lane to success.

The best part? It’s all been done before! We talked to five experts about how a little bit of obsession led to a lot of payoff in their respective industries.

Andrew Zimmern got so specialized in culinary arts that he learned kitchen speak around the world:

“When I’m in a kitchen, whether it’s in a home kitchen or a restaurant kitchen, and somebody talks to me about something…99 times out of 100 I know exactly what the person is saying to me regardless of what the language is, because I’m more immersed with that person, and I’m more tethered to them, and more co-regulated to them by the language of the kitchen than I am by anything else.

And I can tell when somebody is even saying something like, ‘What should we make tonight for dinner?’ because they have that look on their face and they’re standing at their counter the same way I stand at mine and talk to a family member. And it really speaks to the universality of food more than anything else.”

Mignon Fogarty took her love of editing and helping others and turned it into an award-winning podcasting and digital empire:

“When I was a little girl, my mom would take me to the local library for writing classes that I always loved. I have an undergraduate degree in English, and I worked for my high school and college newspapers. I’ve always loved technology, and I heard about this neat, new thing called podcasting and just wanted to give it a try. I realized that my editing clients were making the same mistakes over and over again in their writing, so I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just do a quick take every week about writing,’ and it really was just an idea that I had. I launched the podcast, and within six weeks it was at number two on iTunes.

Journalists loved that a writing podcast was popular so I started getting a lot of press, and it just never stopped. Within less than a year after I started, I was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show as a grammar expert. I didn’t have any PR. I didn’t reach out to them; they just found me through my podcast.”

Jillian Michaels took her high-focus fitness routine and applied it to just about every other part of her life:

“At a young age, I began to appreciate the transformative power of fitness, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically, and I realized that when you’re strong physically, it transcends into the other facets of your life. I hold myself accountable as a parent. I hold myself accountable as a businesswoman. I do my best. I’m not perfect, but I do my best to try harder to take responsibility for the things I’ve screwed up, you know, to have the ego strength to own my mistakes and to try to re-approach more intelligently. I do that in all facets of my life. It’s not always easy, but I also know that I have a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem, and so I’m better equipped to own my screw-ups, and I know that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. We’re all human, we’re all going to make mistakes and fuck up. The key is to be strong enough to take responsibility for it.

What’s in it for you to do the work [of learning a language]? How will it improve the quality of your life? I think that’s the most important thing.”

Eddie Izzard transformed comedic talent into an opportunity to connect with audiences across borders:

“I started performing, in French particularly, with a political idea behind it. I just pushed [learning other languages]. I would go on a holiday in France, and I’d have a conversation with a guy behind the bar. I’d have a conversation with the waiting person and try to strike up a conversation in hotels. Then I started saying: ‘Right, I’m going to perform in this, that’s going to be quite a difficult thing to do. What are the standard procedures when you learn your show in a second language?’ Oh, there aren’t any. People don’t really do it. So I sort of had to make all of that up, and I started doing lessons one-on-one in a teaching school in Paris.

In the end, the real way that I’m learning is what I call French conversation lessons and German conversation lessons. I will be doing this in Spanish as well, where you sit with a person and you talk about anything, particularly in French, I’d do this, ‘Je parle de n’importoi ? Qu’est-ce que c’est, qu’est-ce que c’est, avec Donald Trump ?’ The weather, the things, the this, the that. And they can say, ‘You don’t say it like that, you say it like this.’

I can now perform all through France and French-speaking countries, and in Germany and German-speaking countries, including Austria and Schweizerdeutsch.”

Emily Favilla gave her “controversial” opinions on language a new life by making a media career out of them:

“I got my undergraduate degree in journalism. I took a copy editing class, and I think that was sort of a pivotal moment when I look back on it. I took a copy editing class on Fridays at 8:30 in the morning and not only did no one take classes on Fridays, but to take a class at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday was like, ‘What are you even doing?’ And everyone was like, ‘Wow, you must really like copy editing.’ I just thought it was really interesting.

I think that there’s something comforting about having these style guides and the idea that there is an answer to your grammar questions; that there is a sort of yes-or-no rule, there’s a blanket rule here, you can consult something and find the answer that you’re looking for. And it’s something that even people my age, in their 30s, were taught was the standard in grammar school and in high school. And I think there is something comforting about having a yes-or-no answer to your question.

I took a copy editing class on Fridays at 8:30 in the morning and not only did no one take classes on Fridays, but to take a class at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday was like, “What are you even doing?”

That was also part of the reason why I wanted to write the book, because I felt like a lot of writers and editors who had come to me with questions would be like, ‘Well, should we say ‘reasons why’ in a headline or reasons? Is ‘reasons why’ redundant?’ And I think that it can be a little scary when you respond with, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter.'”


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