Obsession may be a necessary but not sufficient requirement for success in the arts (and perhaps even elsewhere).
I know quite a few people who later became famous—some a little famous, some more famous. Having known these people in childhood and/or adolescence, I’ve noticed that they all had something in common: obsessive focus on one exclusive interest, and usually that focus began in childhood.
Why am I writing about this now? After seeing the film “La La Land” the other day, I was reading about its writer/director, who was only 30-31 when he made the movie. His extremely youthful age got me to wondering how on earth he could have gotten so far so fast in the movie-making biz. I took in a bunch of articles about him (none of which will be linked here, because I was reading them for fun and didn’t take any notes), all of which indicated that Damien Chazelle (that’s his name) has known since earliest childhood that he wanted to make films.
That’s true despite the fact that Chazelle is smart enough to get into Harvard (his alma mater), and so he must have had a lot of choices. But as he describes it, he knew—practically as a toddler, when he was watching old Disney stuff like “Cinderalla,” the sort of thing just about every kid views—that what he wanted to do with his life was to make films.
That is a highly unusual choice at that age. A lot of teenagers and college students decide they want to make films, but I don’t know of many 5-year-olds see Bambi and think “I want to create something like that.” However, Chazelle was a student of film and film technique from the start, so in a way you could say that by the age of 30 he’d been apprenticing for about 25 years.
In addition, Chazelle met another similarly focused (from early early childhood, that is) young man while at Harvard, composer Justin Hurwitz. And away they went, thinking about the films they’d be creating together, which is exactly what came to pass. I remember reading in some interview or other that Hurwitz was so focused—as a six-year-old—on composing that he’d be up every night for hours doing it, and that his parents had to impose limits on his composing in order for him to get enough sleep even as a young child.
So it’s no accident that the films of Chazelle and Hurwitz (the other film they are known for is “Whiplash”) are about this very thing: focus on a goal in the arts, and the perils and costs of that focus. Although the two have been wildly successful, of course the vast majority of such dreamers are not successful. The musical “A Chorus Line” got that just about right.