Work and play

A couple of recent posts have gotten me thinking about work and play.  One was Elizabeth’s post on why she decided not to pursue an Etsy store for her sewing.  The other was Myrna’s post on starting her new jewelry business.

At the moment, I work as a scientist, and sew and paint in my spare time.  I don’t think I am more or less passionate about any of these activities, but I treat them very differently, because one is a job and the others are hobbies.

At work, I am extremely product-oriented.  I approach science as a business, where the end product is a paper and the most valuable resource is time.  Like Myrna, I work backwards from the product to figure out my schedule.  If I want to publish a paper in two years, what kinds of experiments can I realistically get done in that time?  How many recordings will I need to do to answer this particular question?  What equipment will I need and how long will it take to get that up and running?  Like an artist, I don’t know exactly what the end product will look like.  Also like an artist I need to leave room for learning and play.  But my play is very focussed: I will budget a week to goof around and try out new stimuli.  Or maybe a month to develop and test a new system of delivering odors.  And I recognize that— as much as I pour myself into work— the paper at the end doesn’t belong only to me.  What I choose to work on is a negotiation between what the field is interested in, what the lab works on, what’s fundable, and my own interests.  Every science project is in some sense a collaboration: between student and advisor, between authors and reviewers.  I often tell students that data doesn’t become science until other people know about it and understand it.  Science is a social endeavour.  And that’s a good thing.

In my hobbies, in contrast, I can be as selfish as I want to be.  I make things because I want to.  Because they strike me as beautiful.  Because I want to learn something.  It’s pleasing and gratifying when people like what I’ve made but that’s not what motivates me.  I am the only judge I care about, and if that means making three muslins none of which become garments, or spending an evening staring at a half-done painting before finally putting it away for several months, or abandoning a medium I’ve become good at because it’s no longer exciting to me, so be it.  It’s my time and I can spend it how I want.

For a long while I thought about trying to make art into a career.  I did some some illustration work which was very enjoyable: I got to treat art as a collaboration for a change and to try to come up with visual solutions that fit both my clients’ wishes and my own sense of design.  But in the end I decided that that wasn’t for me.  I didn’t want to spend my free time promoting my art.  I didn’t want to tailor my paintings to fit the market.  I didn’t want to turn art into a form of production, rather than a form of discovery.  So while I still do an art show each year and I love it when one my paintings finds a good home, I don’t treat art as a business.  And that works for me.  (At least for now.)

I also learned that selfish time is important.  It is my prozac, my exercise.  It is what allows me to be the kind of wife and mother and scientist I want to be.  I thought maybe that would end when Joey was born.  Every so often I tell myself it’s time to “get serious” and start devoting every spare minute to reading the science literature or working on analysis.  But I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I need to be selfish at times so I can be generous the rest of the day.  Blessedly, I have a husband who understood this before I did.

At the same time, becoming a professional scientist also made me a better artist.  It taught me how to plan a project that might take years to complete.  It taught me how to break ambitious goals into manageable pieces.  It taught me how to give and receive criticism with grace.  It taught me that I can teach myself any skill and gave me the patience to let those skills mature.  It let me know just how long it takes to actually get anything done.

So I feel happy (and lucky!) to be able to both work and play.  For me it seems to work best if these are separate activities.  But I know that for other people they are the same thing.  May everyone find the balance that works for them in the new year!