Every working adult gets asked, “What do you do for a living?” I’m asked this all the time—in almost every social setting, and generally feel obligated to answer differently depending on my audience. My wife never knows what to say. “He works in advertising, but he used to be a scientist.” Today she told one of her colleagues that I work in marketing. Which is true, as long as you’re not asking me about supply chain management. My accountant knows I’m a copywriter, but thinks I write fine print for TV spots (he was talking about ISI). “No, I actually don’t write that”, I said.
Even the people closest to me have no concept of what I do. My parents have never seen the show Mad Men, so that comparison is off the table. When I talk about creativity my mother says, “But you’re a scientist,” mingled with a somewhat confusing glare. What she’s really wondering is, “How is my son (the brilliant doctor) able to think creatively? He’s a left-brained science geek!” Did she not remember all those short stories I wrote in the 3rd grade? Incidentally, “The Lost Wolf” was one of those stories. I’m pretty sure it won some version of a Newbery medal for kids.
What I love about my job is that I get to think creatively all the time, and still get to ponder science. But rather than bore you with my career choices, let me try to convince you that science (left brain) and creativity (right brain) are not so mutually exclusive.
Myth #1: Left brain vs right brain dominance
For years, psychologists have thought that reasoning, logic, and critical thinking come from the left side of the brain, whereas creativity, color, and emotion come from the right. For the most part, this was proven by Roger Sperry’s experiments dating back to the 1950s (he won a Nobel Prize in 1981). But, the notion that every person is either “left-brained” or “right-brained” is completely a myth. Modern neuroimaging studies show there is no “left-brain” or “right-brain” dominant person. We are anatomically structured in such a way that both hemispheres of the brain talk to each other. At the center of your brain is the corpus callosum, a cluster of nerve fibers that join both sides. So if you think that your account team is a bunch of “left-brained” nerds who love making Excel spreadsheets, and your creative team is full of “right-brained” misfits, that may not be the case.
Myth #2: Scientists are not artists
Creativity is essential for scientific progress. I can tell you from experience that status quo research lacking innovation never sees the light of day in scientific journals. In academia, researchers are constantly under pressure to publish in high-impact journals like Nature and Science, where the most important criteria for acceptance are originality and innovation. In other words, you have to have a big idea, and you have to communicate it in a way that tells a compelling story to your audience. Does that sound familiar to the Ad Age junkies out there?
Throughout history the most successful scientific breakthroughs were discovered by highly creative people such as Albert Einstein, who once said, “The greatest scientists are artists.” Einstein had the amazing ability to conceptualize time and space—and many of his early theoretical experiments were actually conducted in his mind. Adam Grant, in his book Originals, refers to Einstein as a conceptual innovator. According to Grant, people like Einstein have the unique ability to identify a problem, create a big idea for a solution, and execute it. Now, I’m not suggesting any of us has the IQ of Einstein. But to be truly successful in advertising you have to think and dream big.
Myth #3: Artists are not scientists
Scientists are by nature experimentalists. They are highly methodical in their madness, which is why a big scientific discovery usually takes years and years. But in reality, artists can be the same way. Wassily Kandinsky was a physicist. He experimented with planes of color, analyzing the force and movement behind every point, line, and plane he painted. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Bob Dylan’s old song notebooks, his lyrics have been annotated and rewritten hundreds of times. Just like scientists, artists use trial and error repeatedly to solve problems. As Grant points out in his book, Robert Frost regarded every poem as an experiment, mixing words and phrases together like a chemist. Grant calls folks like Robert Frost and Mark Twain “experimental innovators,” because they “learn from what they discover in their audience, on the canvas, or in the data.” So by definition, if we take a trial and error approach to rewriting headlines, expressions, or creative briefs, we are in fact true scientists.
So what is my point? Well I’m hoping that if my family reads this, they’ll understand my career choices a little better. Maybe the next time someone asks what I do for a living, I’ll say “an experimentalist,” just to get a response. But most important, I believe that high-level creativity is not some innate quality designated for certain “right-brained” people. So the next time you rewrite a headline, redesign a logo, or rewrite a brief, think of yourself as an experimentalist. And better yet, when you need that big idea for a client, think of yourself as a conceptual innovator. I will. This is a tough business, and to do our job well we need every part of our brain—not just one side.
…and if you care to know what happens in “The Lost Wolf”, send me an email.
- Grant A. Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World. New York, NY: Viking; 2016.
- Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, et al. An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. PLoS One. 2013;8(8):e71275.
- Kandinsky W. Point and Line to Plane. New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc; 1979.
- Sperry RW. Cerebral organization and behavior. Science. 1961;133(3466):1749-1757.
- Harr M. The Lost Wolf. Conneaut Elementary School: 1988.