Imagine that, at nine years old, you’re receiving music lessons from an accomplished composer who quickly heralds you as the next Mozart.
Imagine that, just three years later, you release your first composition, and the following year, you’re appointed as the assistant court organist alongside your mentor.
Imagine that, over the next decade and a half, you get to meet and perform for Mozart, who tells a friend you’re going to make a great name for yourself one day, and you continue to hone your skills, amaze your teachers, and establish yourself as a once-in-a-generation talent.
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But then, at just 26 years old, you notice a strange buzzing and ringing in your ears. It’s there the next day, too. And the next one.
You continue to write, practice, and perform your music, but day by day, week by week, month by month, the static hum in your head begins to drown out the world around you.
It’s not long before you realize that you’re going deaf, and after trying all manner of remedies, doctors tell you that the condition is likely to afflict you for the rest of your life.
You’re overwhelmed by sadness. For your entire life, music is all you’ve known. It’s all you’ve done. It’s who you are. And now, in a cruel and ironic twist of fate, you’re being robbed of your ability to even appreciate it, let alone produce it.
What would you do? Do you think you could somehow find the will to soldier on as you slide into a realm of utter silence? Or would you curse your unlucky stars and vow to never touch an instrument again?
Ludwig van Beethoven once faced this predicament, and if he hadn’t refused to give up, we’d never have masterpieces like his Ninth Symphony, late string quartets, or Diabelli Variations.
How the hell did he write and play music if he couldn’t hear, you’re wondering? He imagined in his mind what his work would sound like. And he went on to produce what are widely considered some of the most beautiful compositions and arrangements in the history of music.
Such is the power of necessity, which another genius, Leonardo da Vinci, once said is the “theme and inventress of nature, her curb and her eternal law.”
What is necessity, though? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the quality or state of being necessary,” but that doesn’t capture its essence.
To get a better sense of what necessity really is—and what it feels like and how it manifests—let’s start with the definition from the original 1828 Webster’s dictionary: “irresistible power; compulsive force, physical or moral.”
The word comes from the Old French term necessité, which meant “need, necessity; privation, poverty; distress, torment; obligation, duty,” and can be traced back to the Latin necessitatem, meaning “compulsion, need for attention, unavoidableness, destiny.”
As you can see, necessity goes beyond mere “desire” or even “passion,” which many people find admirable, and enters the territory of obsession, relentlessness, and inevitability, which many people regard as a form of madness.
When you approach something with necessity, you do it with an extreme level of intensity and focus. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
There’s no question that Beethoven was animated by necessity. As Anton Schindler wrote in his biography The Life of Beethoven:
“Beethoven rose at daybreak, no matter what season, and went at once to his work-table. There he worked until two or three o’clock, when he took his midday meal. In the interim he usually ran out into the open two or three times, where he also ‘worked while walking.’ Such excursions seldom exceeded a full hours time, and resembled the swarming out of the bee to gather honey. They never varied with the seasons and neither cold nor heat were noticed.
“Beethoven always spent his winter evenings at home, and devoted them to serious reading. It was but seldom that one saw him busy with music-paper in the evening, since writing music was too taxing for his eyes. In former years this may have been the case; yet it is quite certain that at no time did he employ the evening hours for composition (creation). At ten o’clock at the latest he retired to bed.”
In other words, for decades, Beethoven spent nearly every minute of every day either thinking about or working on his music or developing and expanding his intellectual horizons, which inevitably informed his ability as a composer.
That, my friends, is necessity, and you find it in great achievers of all types and in all disciplines. Regardless of who they are, how they like to live and work, and what they’re trying to achieve, top performers are almost always characterized by an all-consuming singlemindedness.
I can relate to this to some degree, as I’ve dedicated at least 80 percent of my waking hours to my work for six years now, and not because I have an irrational compulsion to work long hours or need for a productive form of escapism that allows me to evade other areas of my life that are falling apart.
For me, it comes down to something that’s summarized in Alice in Wonderland of all places:
My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.
In other words, I wholeheartedly believe that in order to escape the universal pull toward decay (entropy) and create and sustain anything worth having in life, whether a body, career, relationship, or society, we have to learn to run faster than we ever thought possible.
And the only way to muster the courage and energy to do that is to fill ourselves with necessity, with the desperate urge to succeed at all costs.
Peter Thiel echoed this in his bestselling book Zero to One, where he challenged readers to imagine how to achieve their 10-year plans in the next 6 months.
“That’s impossible,” you say?
Don’t be so sure. It might just take a radical shift of your perspective away from what you believe is “possible” or “realistic”—or worse, “comfortable”—toward simply what it would take to get it done.
Look at it this way:
If pushed to the wall, I doubt any of us would die on any of the hills we’re currently struggling to climb. In every case, we’d figure out a way to the top, and probably faster than we ever thought possible.
What does that tell us, then, about many of our unrealized ambitions and excuses? How many times have we failed merely because we lacked the will to win?
I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard pressed to think of an instance where I failed to achieve a goal or live up to a standard for any reason other than I just couldn’t summon enough necessity and thus wasn’t willing to do what it took.
That’s why the first questions I now ask myself before embarking on any endeavor, whether personal or in business, are:
- What does a win look like here, exactly?
- What is it probably going to take to get there in terms of time, money, energy, and effort?
- Can I say without reservation that I’m ready to pay that price (and probably more)?
And I don’t begin until I’m satisfied that I’ve fully answered numbers one and two and absolutely positive in my answer to number three.
In other words, I avoid vague, unquantified, lukewarm commitments, and this means I get to spend most of my time on activities that are aligned to clear-cut and achievable objectives.
And as this has proven to be a reliable recipe for necessity for me, I also now get to enjoy more meaningful wins.
Do This Now
Can you think of any endeavors or even areas of your life where your necessity quotient is lacking? Are you going through the motions of any halfhearted commitments?
Of course you can. We all can.
Now consider this: what would your relationship to those undertakings or parts of your life look like if you were to approach them with unwavering compulsion, duty, and relentlessness? What would you have to do for other people to consider you obsessed? Take your time and get specific.
What do you think might happen if you were to be that person for the next year or two or five? How might things change?
And what’s at least one thing you could start doing today, no matter how small or simple, to move toward becoming that person? To start thinking and behaving that way?
Well, there’s your jumping-off point, your first step of what could become a transformative journey if you’re willing to continue walking the path.