“Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.”
Somewhere in a chemistry lab in the University of Southern California, a PhD student in molecular biology was at work. He was preparing agarose, a viscous gelatin substance that is often used to separate DNA molecules. For the substance to be sterilized, it needed to be placed into an autoclave, or a pressurized oven.
“I was making a lot, like gallons, in Erlenmeyer flasks,” he remembered. “So after an hour, it was hot as shit, and you have to wear oven mitts and you take it out and you can’t pour it because it’s practically boiling. I was waiting for it to cool down and it’s taking forever, and you go back and touch it an hour later. If it’s still hot, you put it under the hood where it sucks air. And three hours later, I have these flasks next to each other. It’s not cool enough.”
In that moment, he said to himself, “These flasks are never going to cool off. I gotta keep ’em separated.”
All of a sudden, it was as though a light bulb went on in his mind. “Whoa,” he thought. “I need to remember that line.”
The student was Dexter Holland, who at the time, was juggling his studies with being the frontman of his band The Offspring. The particular line “keep ’em separated” eventually evolved into their breakthrough single Come Out and Play, a song written about school violence. Following its release, his band catapulted into mainstream success.
Soon enough, Dexter faced a dilemma. On one hand, he loved his studies, but on the other, moving forward with his band seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As he recounted, “We got a manager and I said, ‘Is there any way I can do school and the band?’ And he said, ‘No way. This is the time. If you want to go for it, you got to go for it.'”
And so, Dexter went ahead to have a conversation with his advisor on why he had to take a leave of absence from his PhD program, saying that his punk band was now on MTV. He had to explain to her, number one: what exactly is a punk band, and number two: what on Earth is MTV.
After twenty years of being committed to The Offspring, he went back to school and resumed his research on HIV. And in 2017, he finally published his thesis, titled “Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences Within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV-1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity”.
In our society that favors specialization, we often frown upon people who have many interests. We think of them as dilettantes, or as lost souls who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. You’ve surely heard of the saying “a jack of all trades is a master of none.”
But there’s also a saying that “the more things you do, the more things you can do.” Arguably, having different interests allows you to make novel connections, thereby making you more creative. As author David Epstein wrote in his book Range, “The labs in which scientists had more diverse professional backgrounds were the ones where more and more varied analogies were offered, and where breakthroughs were more reliably produced when the unexpected arose.”
For you to be indispensable as an artist, there is the need for you to discover new patterns rather than rely on ones that are familiar to you. There is the need to apply your knowledge across different contexts and situations.
It’s no coincidence that the greatest artists had many interests and hobbies. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci was able to blur the lines between science and art in his realistic paintings, because he devoted himself to learning subjects like optics and anatomy, which tended to matter little to his contemporaries. Einstein loved playing the violin, and doing so often helped him get unstuck in his scientific work. Steve Jobs didn’t limit himself to electronics, but also loved the humanities, particularly music, as he would spend an enormous amount of time deciphering Bob Dylan lyrics.
And of course, there’s Dexter Holland, a brainiac musician who graduated as class valedictorian in high school, and worked his way to a PhD. If that isn’t interesting enough, he runs a well-to-do hot sauce company, Gringo Bandito, and is also a licensed pilot who even managed to fly around the world in 10 days back in 2014.
Particularly when it comes to the intersection between music and his studies, he explained that he understands musical notes as shapes. “I can totally see the connection between math and music,” he said. “I can visualize it. When I play the chord structure for Come Out and Play, it’s kind of a triangle in a way. There is a kind of spatial association between music and math.”
There is a caveat here, of course. By writing this article I’m not implying that the saying about being “a jack of all trades” is baseless or untrue. After all, you can very well have different interests and be lost.
The crucial thing to remember here, is that you must have a main craft or field that you are committed towards. And with that, you know where your priorities are. For Dexter, as an example, his main thing is his music, which is why he decided to take a leave of absence from his studies when the circumstances weren’t convenient for him to stay.
So, open your mind to different interests. And this doesn’t only mean taking up different fields. It’s just as true when it comes to diversifying your interests in a single field. If you’re a non-fiction writer, you can also read a lot of poetry and novels. If you’re a rock musician, you can be a big fan of other genres as well. Because from that, you can combine your influences and create art that is truly unique and your own.
Most importantly, go and have fun.