Balancing a Strong Left Brain and a Strong Right Brain

Sometimes it’s difficult to find enough time to develop all of your skills.
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Question: If you had to choose between teaching math and dancing, which would you pick? 

Catherine Asaro: If I had to decide and I could only teach either physics or math, or ballet, it would be a really tough decision. I think probably I would teach the math because you can keep teaching a subject like math or physics forever, essentially. Whereas with dance, you have to stay in shape and if you don't stay in shape it gets harder and harder to teach the class. That's not saying that every teacher has to be at the top of her peak or his peak, but for me I don't feel like I'm demonstrating well if I can't do the steps myself. 

So if I were teaching dance, of course I would be doing more dance, but I think if I had to make a choice, as tough as it would be I would probably go with math as what I'd teach. 

Question: Is there a specific benefit of excelling both science and the arts? 

Catherine Asaro: For one thing, it's very satisfying. For another, you get paid a lot better as a scientist than as an artist. I actually make a living as a writer, but it goes up and down and enough of a living to pay a mortgage on a house, and buy a car, and send a child to college oversees, no it's not enough of a living for that. 

In other arts, for example music, I also sing and play concerts. And for people who are doing acting, and playing instruments, it's really hard to make a living unless you happen to be one of the people that hits really big. Whereas in science, once you get the degree, if you're reasonably good at what you do, you can pretty much get a well-paying job. So I would say the benefit of doing both is that when the arts side goes down as far as whether the economy goes bad or I don't happen to get a contract this term or whatever, you still have income from your work as a scientist. 

But I think from a more creative point of view, the two complement each other. A lot of my writing has mathematics in it just because for me it fits so well. When I think about math it gives me an idea for the writing and when I think about the writing I go “Wait a minute, that gave me an idea how to solve a problem that I was working on in the physics or the math.” As to how that happens or why I couldn't tell you. 

Question: What’s the biggest challenge in working in both arts and sciences? 

Catherine Asaro: I would say that both ask of you a lot of time. If you want to excel in either, it's not enough just to be profoundly talented because no matter how talented someone is and I sometimes see that with my math students. I'll get someone who I know has the potential to do brilliant work, but you also have to want to put in the time to do it. It has to be the thing that excites your passion, because it takes hours or work. You know, we talked about prodigies in music, well yes, they're prodigies because not only are they good but they play the piano for hours a day. 

Same with my daughter who was sometimes called a prodigy as a ballet dancer, yes she was very good but the reason she was dancing professional at such a young age was because she put in six, seven hours a day sometimes dancing. And science is the same; if you want to get a degree, getting a physics major is not an easy curriculum. Getting a degree in math, going to graduate school and getting a doctorate in a scientific or mathematical subject, it's a big time commitment. And then when you go out into the world to work, you have to keep up on all the research. You have to do your own work. 

If you're at a university you could be spending 70, 80, 90 or more hours a week on your job. So I would say the biggest challenge is finding the time to do both and do them well. 

Question: What advice do you give your daughter about her own artistic and scientific pursuits? 

Catherine Asaro: I remember very much telling her when she would say, "Maybe I'll just quit ballet. Maybe I'll just quit math." I'd say, "Well you could do that." And she also was playing the piano excessively too. I said, "You're doing a lot, and it might help you to balance things better." I said, "But you know I quit dancing when I was in college and I've always regretted it. I was able to go back and pick up the, some of the techniques so I can still dance." I said, "But I wished I hadn't." And she said, "Okay, I'll think about it." And she thought about it, and she decided when she would periodically think about eliminating one of those things. She usually decided not to. What we told her was, we would support whatever she wanted to do. If she wanted to keep doing all three we would find ways to help her balance. If she wanted to drop something we would be supportive of that too.

And in fact, she did, when she was 6 years old. This is when it started coming up. It was pretty young. She was doing the both the ballet and gymnastics. She is very talented physically for coordinated-type exercises. And the coach said, "I think she can be a really good competitive gymnast." 

And so they were training her to do that when she was 6-years-old and she was going many hours. And she said, "Mom I don't think I want to do this." She said, "I like the performance part of dancing more than the competitive part of gymnastics." And I said the same thing to her then. I said, "If you decide it's really what you don't want to do then we'll drop it because you shouldn't put that much pressure on yourself if you don't feel it's what you want to do." And the thing I usually always told her was think about it for a few days and so she thought about it. 

And in that case she came back and she said, "I'm pretty sure it's not what I want to do." So she stopped doing gymnastics and I don't think she ever went back to it after that. Another thing that she always wanted to do was singing. She didn't have much time so she hasn't done a lot of it.  But it's the same I told her with that. Never feel that you're not able to do something if you want to. I said, "Don't put pressure on yourself to do it if you don't feel you have time or you don't feel you're ready, or you're not sure whether you want to do it or not." I said, "Just the thing to remember is don't do anything that you want to do because you think you won't be able to do it." 

I said, "Always try. It doesn't matter if you're not the best in it, that's okay. As long as you enjoy it." So I think that was probably the best advice I gave her was, don't limit yourself. 

Recorded on June 7, 2010