Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Aren't Scientists "Creatives"?

A couple of interesting articles this morning, one in the Harvard Business Review, "Keeping Your Options Open Could be Hurting Your Career," and another in "99%," the excellent blog by Behance, "Take Back Creative Control, Introducing the New Behance." They both got me thinking.

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

The HBR article reflected a focused vision of "self" that supposedly results in a high-paying, rewarding career trajectory. The article made some good points. There's nothing wrong with focus. And it's good to determine one's niche in order to maximize that focus. But can intense focus and niche marketing of oneself develop at the detriment of being well-rounded?

Curve of the Hand

In the liberal arts where I have taught my whole life we challenge students to be well-rounded critical thinkers. We encourage young people to take intellectual risks, open their minds to all sorts of ideas, and appreciate a range of cultural, historical, and scientific contributions that are part of the patrimony of our species. This is not an easy job, because most of our non-major students are driven to what they perceive will be a high-paying career in finance. They are not intrinsically interested in broadening their pursuits.

Tree Rings

So why are we teaching in the liberal arts? Why not just encourage our students to ease into a career on Wall Street? As a broadly-trained person I am convinced that that best way to appreciate life, whether you are making a lot of money or a little money, is to take interest in everything around you. I would argue that keeping your intellectual options open is the most effective way to live a rewarding life. And a person's intellectual pursuits often overlap with their work. Perhaps more quality of life is worth more than a higher quantity of money?

Columns, Santa Domingo Church

As I clicked my way through the Behance article I came upon a list of showcased "creative" fields. I was disappointed not to find science included. Scientists have to be creative. We have to think outside the box. We have to interact with a natural world that is hard to describe, and we have to interact with humans who benefit from having it described to them. I've written a lot about this issue in these posts and I think it all comes back to having an open mind.

Keeping your options open as a scientist leads to so many rewarding possibilities. It allows you to keep discovering way beyond your initial research. It provides opportunities to synthesize ideas from disparate sources. Keeping your options open may in fact, be the best way to be a high-achieving scientist. Without an open mind you are prone to looking no further than your own ideas and falling into a rut.

Zygadenus elegans

So what's my bottom line? Whether you are a scientist or an artist or anything in between, do keep your options open. Continue to explore. Allow new ideas to flow in. Do your best work. But don't do your work in a vacuum. Take in the world in your thoughts and actions.

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