I recently read several articles that debunk the notion that people are either “right brained” or “left brained”. The University of Utah recently conducted a study where they scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, ages 7 to 29, while they were doing things like relaxing quietly or reading, measuring the specific mental processes taking place on both sides of the brain. They broke the brain into 7,000 regions, and although they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralized, they found no evidence that any of the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network.
To be honest, I’m not smart enough or qualified enough to adequately assess all the data and studies on this topic and determine whether or not people are actually “right brained” or “left brained”, but either way, I still find it to be a useful lens to view life and people through. I prefer to look at it more in terms of following your “heart” vs following your “head”. I view creative, “right brained” people as people who tend to “follow their hearts” more than their heads. In general, they’re more driven by emotions and passions than by socially accepted constructs of what is “logical” or “practical”. In other words, they’re dreamers who prefer to take the road less traveled. Sound familiar?
I without a doubt, fall more into the category of a “right brained”, heart before head, sort of person. Most of the major decisions I’ve made in my life have been based more on what “feels right” and what I’m the most excited and passionate about at the time. There have been battles between my head and heart many times, and my heart, for better or worse, almost always wins.
For me, what I’ll call the “heart centered path”, started way back when I was a kid growing up. I was always a bit of a starry eyed dreamer. I was the type of kid who would doodle in his notepad, dreaming of bigger and better things, while my teachers were rambling on about algebra, history, or whatever subject they happened to be teaching that I wasn’t particularly interested in. Don’t get me wrong, I was actually a pretty good student. I was even in the “honor roll” in high school. But I was always simply drawn to the things I was interested in. I didn’t want to be dictated to which subjects were important. I wanted to, well, just “follow my heart”.
In many ways, at this vantage point in my life, I feel that my instinct to “follow my heart” was the right instinct. I’m 40 years old, and I can’t think of a single time my survival was dependent on answering some sort of complicated algebra equation. No one has ever run up to me and stuck a gun to my head and demanded that I name all 44 US presidents in sequential order or that I would be taken out. Not once has either of those scenarios even come close to happening. These sorts of questions don’t even come up in job interviews.
However, as much as I feel that it is important to get in touch with what we’re excited about and passionate about, and let those things influence our decisions, we still need to cultivate the “left brain” part of our decision making skills to make sense of it all and to prevent ourselves from making major decisions that could actually turn out to be mistakes. Or, another way of putting it, is that we’ll get better results if we strike a balance between these two parts of ourselves. When we get our heart and head in alignment, instead of going to war with ourselves, we’ll get much better results and things will flow much more smoothly and harmoniously.
Over the years, I’ve become a much more balanced person in terms of following my heart, but using my head to follow my heart more strategically. But I wasn’t always this way. When I was younger, I was much more driven by what I thought was my heart, but that in many cases was just a fleeting emotion that encouraged me to make hasty decisions. Often times, the impulse behind the decision was right, but I didn’t allow the “left brained” part of myself to express itself enough to figure out the best course of action in many cases.
Here’s an example:
When I was 24 years old I worked as a sales rep for a major guitar manufacturer near Chicago. My job was to deal with retailers and sell them PA equipment and guitars. When I was hired, I was initially pretty excited because I thought, cool, I play guitar and I love music, and I’ll be working with guitars and musicians all day. It seemed like a great fit. Well, this couldn’t have been further from the truth, because it turns out that selling guitars and playing them are two very different skills.
I didn’t mind the job at first, but over the next few months one thing after another happened with the company that left me feeling enraged and stressed out at the end of the day. My first check was off by about two thousand dollars, in their favor. The inventory was always wrong and I would constantly sell things that we didn’t actually have in stock, leaving the retailers I was working with outraged. It was literally one thing after another. If you’ve ever worked for a large corporation, I’m sure you can relate. I’ve only had a handful of jobs in “corporate America”, but they all had their fair share of similar incidents.
After about seven months working for this company, I had enough. I couldn’t stand working there anymore and I could “feel” that I was destined for something greater than selling guitars for the rest of my life. So, one day, I went to work and something happened that angered me, that I no longer remember. Whatever it was, it upset me so much that I decided to quit right on the spot. I went for my lunch break, went back to my cubicle, quietly gathered my things and simply left the building without telling a single person. As I was leaving, one of my co-workers saw me leaving and mouthed the words “Are you quitting?”. I nodded yes and he mouthed back, “that’s awesome” as he air high-fived me.
As I walked out of the building, defiant and proud, a sense of joy swept over my body. I showed them I thought, and even more importantly, I showed myself. I showed myself that I wouldn’t allow myself to be stuck in a position that didn’t feel right. I had a dream, and selling guitars wasn’t it. I felt like I made the right decision because I was “following my heart”.
Well, that feeling lasted about 24 hours. I went home, had a couple drinks with a friend and didn’t think much about it. I went about my day and went to sleep. The next day when I woke up a sense of panic came over me. What the F&*% am I going to do now I thought. I had an apartment, a car and bills to pay. I wasn’t crazy about my job, but I needed it. I had a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts with very little real world job experience. I had no idea what to do next. I was so panicked that I even tried to get my job back. When they said the only way I could come back was to go through the interview process all over again, I politely declined.
Here’s the moral of the story. In retrospect, I wasn’t wrong to quit my guitar sales job. It wasn’t a good fit for me and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. But by only listening to my heart without any sort of “left brain” strategizing, I made an impulsive decision that turned out to be very stressful and created more of a setback than it should have. Ultimately I went on to find another job, quit that one and then worked a few more places before ultimately figuring out a path that worked for me. Things worked out, but it could have been much less stressful with a little more planning and “left brain” strategizing.
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of musicians tend to be more “right brained”, “heart centered” types of people. As musicians, we love to “follow our hearts” and “stay true to ourselves”. I personally wouldn’t live any other way. But life and experience have taught me that our hearts need to be balanced with the more “left brained” analytical part of ourselves. There’s a reason both parts of the brain exist and if you go too far in either direction you’ll experience a feeling of being out of balance.
I would go as far as to say that one of the reasons the music industry is in such bad shape right now (one of many), is that musicians tend to make very bad business people. We’re so eager and passionate about our art that many of us, end up entering into bad deals, or playing shows for little or no money, or giving away our music for free and on and on. We’re so “heart centered” that we make decisions that simply aren’t in our own best interest and we indirectly end up affecting the entire industry by our willingness to play for little or no money. I plan on writing a whole separate post about this specific topic, but I think this aspect of being a musician is one of the reasons that as musicians we make such easy prey for “shady” and greedy music industry executive types.
One of the things that has helped me grow the most in this area, is running my own business. By developing my business skills, I’m now able to see more clearly how things work in the “real world” and how I’m able to integrate that with my dreams and passions. I still “reach for the stars” and chase my dreams, but I do it with more of a sense of clarity and a feeling of being grounded. I understand the business side of art and it doesn’t make me jaded or cynical, it just gives me a sense of how things really are.
One of the drawbacks to trying to be a professional musician, is that we tend to be much more emotionally attached to something like our art than if we were to make, let’s say, some sort widget or something we were trying to sell. Our music feels so important to us that it’s hard to be detached and objective about it. We want so badly to get it out into the world that we forget that our songs, just like any other product, have a fixed cost that we need to recoup if we are going to “stay in business”. We forget that we can’t just give our music away for free forever in the hopes of getting more exposure. At some point we have to let the left brained part of us kick in long enough to figure out how to make a career out of music.
If you spend an average of a thousand dollars to record one track, then it’s pretty clear how much you need to earn from your songs to stay in business. Let you’re left brain chew on that for awhile, it will actually figure out a way to make it work, so that the right brained part of you can focus on what it really loves, making music.