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.
3/4/2015 01:41:05 am
It's funny, early on I had a practical side and was fairly mercenary about my music. I figured I needed to play music and get paid. This was no big deal in NYC and I was a member of the Union. People were used to paying for music. (Except maybe Hilly, but that's another story). When I moved out West, first AZ and then CA, I noticed a different attitude. Lots of people balked at the idea of paying someone to play music or record and produce them. Despite that I did run a successful music business for many years. Life and family happened and eventually I started making boatloads of money as a web developer during the boom. I was able to buy musical gear but had little time to make music except a film score now and again. Now the web dev industry is just as desperate as the music industry and I realize that I really would rather be making money from music. The industry has changed and I have kept up with it at least intellectually, but I find myself almost starting over again (albeit with way more skills and knowledge of music and business). So, your article really hit the nail on the head. I am 57 and starting over. Crazy you say? I just don't want to go through the rest of my life not doing what I love.
3/4/2015 02:21:08 am
I think it's all about finding a balance that works for our respective situations. It's foolish to deny that we don't need money and just blindly follow our passions, but it's also equally foolish to be slaves to money and deny the things that bring us joy and meaning.
3/4/2015 08:46:48 pm
You are right Aaron. It's all about balance. Life out of balance is precarious and not very fun.
3/4/2015 11:06:00 am
Awesome blog! you hit the nail on the head concerning passion and business. In my past, I recorded music with a good friend who is a producer for the love of recording and playing guitar only to never get paid or an advanced career as a musician. I have truly learned my lesson balance between business and passion.
3/8/2015 05:05:56 am
It's very easy to spend years just spinning our wheels as musicians if we're not careful. I know so many great musicians who just love playing and are amazing musicians yet their careers never take off. That's fine if you just love playing music for the sake of playing, but if your goal is to make a career out of music, it's really important to apply some left brain logic.
TOTALLY agree! I had that same job, at a music store at one point, and I was friggin suicidal.
3/5/2015 03:55:40 am
Exactly, not that it's easy, but there are a lot of tools available to help savvy musicians make money from their music.
3/7/2015 06:27:24 am
My wife always tells people I'm right brained. I call it moody and in a constant creative storm. I hear songs in my head almost all the time, I've had good jobs and I hated all of them. I never worked a real job for longer that three years. I taught guitar for almost twenty five years. When 2008 came and the bottom fell out... I could say I became withdrawn But this is no time to quote Dylan. Anyway Losing everything made me start over. I didn't have the heart left for teaching anymore, So I started recording, that was close to five years ago. I always pined my heart out for someone who would just answer questions. I don't mind paying for help but some of these folks want thousands of dollars. last December I found a home through "How to License your Music.Com" almost half way through the 180 day challenge and I'm light years ahead of where I would have been other wise. Here's the point, I don't want to quit I'm inspired to keep going. I want to succeed in the worst way, I never felt that with a regular job or working for the boss every night and day. I think all of us are just music gypsies, you have to keep going until you find that sweet spot. My fondest dream is to learn how to mix master and sell my music with the hope of passing that on to someone else so they can live their dreams. I know some young kid is out there wondering how in the world does this work? Well as soon as I know I'll tell them and help them so they can stop wondering through a maze of crap and make music for all to hear and enjoy.
3/8/2015 05:07:58 am
Hey Ron! I'm glad you're enjoying the program! Keep going and I'm sure you can figure out a way to make things work for you.
3/8/2015 04:56:01 am
That's awesome! I'm glad you enjoy my music:)
Leave a Reply.