America's Obsessives

The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

Joshua Kendall 2013

Kendall also wrote about "obsessives" Noah Webster and Pierre Roget (who is credited with the log-log slide rule for roots and exponentiation).

I did not read the whole book, skipping the chapters on Alfred Kinsey and Estee Lauder. The other subjects were Thomas Jefferson, Henry Heinz, Melvil Dewey, Charles Lindbergh, and Ted Williams. Not many interesting surprises.

I learned a few interesting facts about Lindbergh and Williams.

Besides aviation, Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) also was a decent writer, and a Nazi sympathizer because of a collaboration with emigre French biologist and eugenicist Dr. Alexis Carrel. The two did important lab experiments on tissue culture and biological fluid pumps in Manhattan for 8 years. After war broke out, Carrel joined Vichy and Lindbergh became a technical adviser for Ford and United Aircraft, flying combat missions in the South Pacific, and made a brigadier general by Eisenhower after the war. The book spends many pages on his adulterous relationships; besides his public marriage to Anne Morrow, he had three families in Germany.

Ted Williams (1918-2002) was cryonically suspended by Alcor, and obsessed with baseball. Lindbergh was one of his top 5 heros. Williams played major league soon after high school, but enlisted as a naval aviator in 1942, called up in November to begin a civilian training program at Amherst, where he excelled in advanced math and physics. Williams was an excellent pilot, became a flight instructor for the Marines in Pensacola at the end of WW2, and signed up for the Marine Reserves afterward. That interrupted his baseball career again, and in 1953 he flew combat missions in Korea in the same squadron as John Glenn.

These people did what was necessary to excel in their chosen professions. They had difficult childhoods and human failings, which the author spilled much ink over. That is necessary for accurate biography, but it isn't all that important to those looking for role models to help them excel. Excellent parenting is as rare as any other skill (and may require similar obsession), but bad childhoods and difficult personalities are vastly more common than exceptional performance. Correlation is not causation, and the author (if he tried) could have found many more successful people with superb childhoods (Richard Feynman comes to mind).

A more valid conclusion is that life is what you make of it, obsession can be a useful tool like any other, and people can turn their obsessions into great good or great evil. While I could wish for a lot more focusing obsession at times, some very valuable ideas result from an "obsession with non-obsession", a defocusing of effort to pay attention to something besides the immediate task.

What characterizes most of Kendall's subjects is that they succeeded by doing what others admired; few were irreplaceable, somebody else would have accomplished similar tasks sooner or later. For example, Dewey invented his decimal system, but the Library of Congress system is better, and the Google search engine can be more useful than either. Unmentioned are others who set out to do what the public did not appreciate until decades later; Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth come to mind. There are important tasks for all personalities - what matters is doing them.

AmericasObsessives (last edited 2014-01-13 06:19:56 by KeithLofstrom)