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Be a Scientist – Be an Artist


I have interviewed a few scientists turned entrepreneur and a lot of artists who are also small business owners, and it has been fascinating to me that their approach tends to be more fluid and understanding of the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur compared to many others. I wanted to examine more about the correlation between the scientific method, the creative process and the entrepreneurial experience.

Recently I watched the movie Martian, and in one of the ending scenes the main character, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon declares, “Space is against you, so the fear of death is natural. You just need to solve one problem after the other till the end to survive.”

The_Scientific_Method_as_an_Ongoing_Process.svgThis quote stuck out as I feel like you could hear an entrepreneur, sitting on a panel at a startup conference, say the very same thing – just about their business instead of space. It got me thinking about the training that scientists receive throughout their schooling and professional experiences that prime them for the understanding that experimentation is necessary to get you to where you want to be and that you have to be okay with not just solving problems, but with things not working out along the way. That doesn’t mean that you have failed – but instead have gathered a worthy piece of information to get you farther in your next experiment.

Likewise, artists are taught from the beginning that there really are not mistakes in artwork…and that setting out with too set of a vision will only limit you in your creation. When a “mistake” happens, quite often artists are able to look at it as an opportunity to see the piece in a different way, adapt according and weave it in toward a new direction. Or – they are willing to say, this isn’t where I want to go, and they drop it and start a new. They create rough drafts, sketches, mock-ups, run-throughs, dress rehearsals…all forms of practice without judgment that this needs to be perfect or ideal the first go-around. They believe, to a degree, that perfection isn’t attainable or even ideal and that it is okay to create, just to create…because you just never know what could come out of it!

Cody Wallis_The Creative CycleOf course these are generalizations, as I know many artists and scientists who are perfectionists, but what is important to distinguish here is that that they have a process. Within that process they allow time and space for questioning, testing and play and throughout have an understanding that these creations or experiments may not be forever, but nonetheless are important to do.

As with all ideas, I am not, by far, the first person to think about this or want to explore it further. An article in Journal for Learning through the Arts, by Amanda Nichols and April Stephens states, “Science and the arts might seem very different, but the processes that both fields use are very similar. The scientific method is a way to explore a problem, form and test a hypothesis, and answer questions. The creative process creates, interprets, and expresses art. Inquiry is at the heart of both of these methods.”

What if we applied this same type of method or process to our own lives? What if we saw our work or our paths in life not as linear, not as a ladder to climb or milestones to hit, but instead as more circular and iterative? Sometimes you move forward, sometimes you move backwards, but each piece is working with and for the benefit of the other.

In essence, what if we saw our business endeavors or our life choices through the lens of a scientist or an artist?

In my conversation with Danny Harris of People’s District and the Knight Foundation, he talked about the fact that not everything we do in life has to be infinite…

I think in life sometimes we feel that projects need to be infinite or that we need to build and scale indefinitely. And whether you want to take the venture capitalist approach that every project needs to have some hockey stick of growth or that you want to create something that lives forever. There’s this other piece, too, that’s building something that is finite and has a definite life span – that you build and put all of your effort into and you build it knowing that it is going to end at some point.

Kathy Lee, who went from being a neuroscientist to being a small batch jam maker, talks about the correlation between being a scientist and making jam…

As a scientist…there is a linear thought process but from a very creative and informed question that people ask. Everyone thinks that science and making jam out of local fruit must be really different – and definitely the end result is – but I start off with a question, “What would taste good with these plums?” and then I come up with an answer…the subject matter is very different and the technical knowledge to a degree, but procedurally it really isn’t. When I make my jam, I write everything down…like in science, I have a notebook…

Another one of my interviewees, Ian Trask, had always imagined he would be a scientist. He majored in biology and even started out his professional career working with a colony of 400 mice in a Salt Lake City lab before realizing that what he really wanted to be was a full-time artist. He quickly came to realize that being a scientist was not what he imagined it would be, but was able to use that very background in science to take the steps to change his path – understanding that the creative process is indeed a practice that takes dedication…

The first step is just learning to dedicate a lot of time to the art making itself, and I think that needs to be the foundation. You need a firm foundation. I kind of picture it as building myself a castle. You want your castle built on solid ground, and in my mind solid ground is hard work and a dedicated time in the studio working on your art. If you aren’t making art, but you are talking about being an artist, maybe that gets you by for a little bit but eventually it is going to catch up with you…so start up a dedicated practice of making your work and let everything else kind of catch up to that.

Douglas Tsoi, a Chapter Be guest blogger, who wrote about the importance of being experimental in life, referred to Chapter Be as my art when we were talking. It was a moment when I not only saw my work through a different lens, but also had a realization that I could look at what I am doing from a completely different mindset.

Both the scientific method and the creative process utilize creative problem solving techniques. How could we all benefit by applying these same creative problem-solving techniques to our own lives? What if we did not require that what we do to be infinite? What if we saw our life path as fun science experiments where we write things down and learn from what works and doesn’t work? What if we saw it all as a long practice that we are slowly cultivating and building with each new stroke and question?

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Images via UCR and Cody Wallis

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