The artist and the scientist
My life has been defined by two polarities. On one side, there is the artist: the sensitive, intuitive creator who thinks in visual language. On the other side, there is the scientist: the rational, analytical thinker who gravitates towards data and logic. As a child, I held both of these identities simultaneously, taking rigorous math courses in school and then drawing for hours at home.
However, when it came time to decide a career, the rational scientist took charge. I wanted to excel, to make something great for the world, to reduce suffering and have a positive impact. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, I thought I could accomplish this through studying economics. I wanted to learn how to design policy to reduce poverty and improve well-being. Relative to this goal, my artistic aspirations seemed frivolous and selfish. I could not see the value in painting simple pictures, in devoting myself to exploring color and form. To me, science and analytical thinking held the key to meaningful work.
I pursued the path of the scientist with undivided attention, double-majoring in economics and math, devouring social science books, and jumping into any research opportunity that I could find. My dedication eventually landed me a spot in the economics PhD program at Stanford. Elated at the opportunity, I moved to California and began what I saw as the final phase of my training.
Meanwhile, I ignored my artistic urges. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, I convinced myself that painting was a waste of time and that art was a luxury for the few. Every so often, I would meet someone pursuing their artistic passion and feel a wave of jealousy. Instead of investigating this feeling, I ignored it and convinced myself that I was on the right path.
At Stanford, I reveled in academic debates with my classmates on all sorts of subjects, learning to take rational arguments to their limits. I also enjoyed implementing statistical methods to draw insights from data and answer difficult research questions.
However, I also found that ad I dove deeper into the world of academic research, I was denying a part of myself. I felt that there was no space for emotion or creative expression in my work. After years of learning to validate theories with data, I became wary of my own intuition. I also lost sight of the value in art. While I was researching poverty and homelessness, how could I justify painting a pretty picture? There was serious work to be done.
My perfectionism and long work hours, combined with the isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic, ultimately led to a crisis of burnout. I felt like my research was going nowhere, my efforts were useless, and that I had lost my creative spark. I was looking for something, anything to bring it back. Out of desperation, I picked up my brushes and enrolled in a painting class in an effort to feel better.
As soon as I started painting again, I felt a rush of relief. All of the inspiration that I had been blocking over the years began pouring through me, and I could not stop painting. I felt lifted from my burnout and depression and energized by the creative process. For the first time in months, I experienced the amazing feeling of blissful absorption that defines creative flow.
Painting changed the way I saw the world. Before, my rational, analytical mind was always searching for problems to solve. However, as I began to paint, my eyes were suddenly opened to the beauty that surrounds us all of the time. I began to relish this new world of color and light. I wanted to paint everything - the fruit in my house, the flowers outside, the people in my neighborhood. These paintings and this new, joyful way of seeing, got me through those last years of the PhD. They reminded me that there was more to life than data, rationality, and writing papers. Fueled by this insight, I was able to come out of my depression and finish my PhD.
Now, I try to live in a way that honors both sides of me, bringing the artist and the scientist into harmony. In my day job, I am an economics policy researcher. This honors my scientific side, the side that loves data and rationality. But I also make sure to make time for my second job as an artist. I paint almost every day, and have painted hundreds of paintings since embracing my artistic side.
I've realized that the artist and the scientist don't have to be in conflict, but can instead support each other. Intuition can lead us to the most promising research questions, or help us disentangle the story behind our results, which we can then validate analytically. I've also seen how my scientific side benefits my art. I turn my scientific curiosity to investigate my visual experience. I use a scientific lens to better understand light and color. I analyze form and value, and use these insights to create more compelling works of art. In this way, my scientific, analytical mind can help me make more impactful art, art that resonates with the audience I seek to serve.
I spent so many years thinking that I had to choose one side or the other. But now I know that I am most complete when I honor both the artist and the scientist within me.