This is one of those essays where I can feel a thread that connects ideas I’ve seen in different parts of my life, but it hasn’t manifested itself yet. This is my attempt to find it.
I’ve followed Zach Pogrob on X and Instagram since early last year. He began by making these viral animated shorts, seemingly inspired by Jack Butcher, each with a motivational message. Slowly, he honed in on this idea of “obsession,” and has made his entire brand (and life) a demonstration of how and why to live an obsessed life.
There are a lot of things I like about this movement, and many that I don’t. It’s awesome to see so many people get inspired to go all-in on their passions. Zach is a runner, and uses running as a medium to express his obsession. He encourages others to go into “The Dark Place” – the hardest mile of a run, the 18 hour days starting a business, etc. – and fall in love with the pain of being obsessed with your mission.
Last week, Zach made a video about the “artist-athlete-entrepreneur” hybrid, the archetype for what he aspires to be – the archetype for obsession. He says that “the best entrepreneurs, artists, and athletes are just living inside their work.”
Zach’s ideas are taking over a small part of the internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if he 10x’s his reach in 2024, especially among young men.
That scares me.
“Focus on one thing.”
That piece of advice has always frustrated me, in large part because it seems to be good advice. A lot of hyper-successful people tend to do one thing really well for a really long period of time. If I wanted to reach that level of success, I’d need to find my thing. My obsession.
In many ways, this obsession with obsession – and this larger idea of narrowing all of your attention to one life-encompassing goal – comes at a time where religion has taken a backseat in most people’s lives. In the West today, “Obsession” seems to be taking the place of God.
And therein lies my hesitation.
It’s also why, despite there not being anything inherently wrong with “hustle culture,” it rubs a lot of folks the wrong way. Ambitious young people view obsession as the goal, and their work as a vehicle to achieve this obsessed lifestyle. Instead, obsession is the vehicle , and we need something greater to maintain our attention.
Muslims – and religious people more broadly – are better at this, but the same is true for them: we think a lot about what is halal and haram, but do we genuinely consider our lives to be a project of Allah? What would it look like for your entire life to be an act of worship? How would you recalibrate your goals, restructure your time, and reimagine the type of life you want to live?
I shouldn’t be obsessed with anything except for Allah. I should be rooted in the teaching of my creator and my worship of Him.
Despite these criticisms, the “artist-athlete-entrepreneur” framing draws me in. It takes a holistic view of life. Zach encourages his followers to view their entire life as an “art project” toward a singular goal.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of Islam and technology. Islam is comprehensive – it is not strictly an ethical or belief system, but it is a way of life. As a result, everything we do and every idea we see should be filtered through the lens of Islam. It is both a system (societal level) and a moral framework (individual and interpersonal level).
Past discussions of the intersection of Islam and technology have all led me to the same answer: “as long as it’s not haram, Muslims should be a part of it.” That’s a frustrating, incomplete response.
Take AI: Muslim circles continue to discuss ethical uses of AI (s/o HadithGPT) and how it can and should be used as a tool for Islamic scholarship. Those are questions at the individual level. At a societal level, though, would AI have been invented (in its current form) in an Islamic society? Would its development have been prioritized? How would a Muslim-designed LLM differ from GPTs? Would we focus more on privacy? On localization? On open source? Would we have stricter guidelines as to what questions the AI could answer? Would we have built the chat interface as a medium at all, or would we argue that chat incentivizes anti-social behavior and focus on other media?
In essence, the Islamic moral framework provides a comprehensive approach:
For users, it’s about responsible and ethical usage in line with Islamic teachings. Individuals must make decisions as to what technology they should use, how it should be used, and understand how it impacts them and others.
For designers and developers, it’s about creating work that inherently embodies Islamic ethical values. This does not mean other technologies or products or institutions are haram, but that we as Muslims have a duty to embrace ihsan when we are designing systems that we can’t expect from others.
This dual approach recognizes the different levels of influence and control in designing vs. participating.
Back to obsession…
What excites me about “obsession” is its return to a holistic view of ihsan. We should be intentional and ambitious about everything in life and all aspects of our identity. But whatever it is that you’re “obsessed” with must be rooted in worship of Allah. Your craft is a vehicle for your worship. Your body is a vehicle for your worship. Your business is a vehicle for your worship.
We suffer from a dearth of shared moral frameworks, and Muslims have an opportunity – as one of the few remaining communities with a framework of their own – to build with strong foundations.
“Obsession” is really one level down from your true purpose. It’s a fun way to articulate the kinds of vehicles you want to drive, but we should all be headed to the same place.