Finding the Balance

7 August 2020

As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s plenty more where that came from. The age-old ‘do what you love’ slogan is a pretty hard one to miss, especially when every superstar out there is broadcasting their own variation on the theme. Reorienting yourself to live your ‘truest self’ has its challenges, no doubt, but that’s not what this blogpost is about. You’ll be pleased to hear this is not just another opinion post on how to chase your dreams. Instead, let me share a different kind of dilemma that often gets sidelined, probably because it doesn’t look like a problem to begin with:

You discover that you like more than one thing in this world.

The agony, I know. It may blow your mind to learn that people have multiple dimensions to their personalities and don’t particularly enjoy being pigeonholed to a single domain! The thing is, I’m not talking about mere hobbies here, but serious contenders for that one focal point of your professional life. Assuming it’s been narrowed down to two broad disciplines, what do you do when you not only find enjoyment in both, but also realize you have a natural—and equal—affinity with each one?

One option would be to choose one discipline and simply cut the other loose. Not so ‘simple’, perhaps, as you risk setting yourself up for a lifetime of second-guessing your decision. Remember, you love both equally. Another option would be to hedge your bets, splitting your time between the two until one eventually takes over. Unfortunately, until that happens, two half-professions is hardly equivalent to one profession. A jack of all trades, as they say, is a master of none. How about a third option then: a see-saw of sorts, giving each area of study some time in the limelight, but keeping both nearby. While on the surface this idea is similar to option two, I believe one important distinction needs to be made: the realization that both sides of you are here to stay. Once both are accepted as integral parts of a ‘bigger picture’, they have no choice but to converge as that picture comes into focus. And with that, something special emerges, larger than the sum of its parts: a niche as unique as your individuality.

Options 1 & 2

In my life I eventually landed on option 3, seeing that glorious see-saw ride for what it really is, but not until I exhausted options 1 and 2 through years and years of soul-searching. And while I haven’t pinned down that elusive niche of mine just yet, at least I know I am on the right track. As I let that see-saw swing, I find that what I spend my time on happens to coincide increasingly with my strengths, as well as what I enjoy doing.

For as long as I can remember, music and science have been at the core of who I am and what I do. For starters, I have always been good with numbers. In fact, one of my earliest memories was writing out sums and calculating powers of two by hand for fun (which apparently is not what most five-year-olds do). But while I excelled in math and science at school, I had an artistic side developing at home. I started to learn piano at seven and by high school I was writing my own songs. I would spend endless hours noodling around with my keyboard, turntable and the somehow never-ending trial version of Fruity Loops. And when making music all by myself got a bit meh, I started to play with others: first in a church band, and later in a variety of techno, electropop, alt-rock, and folk-rock outfits. Curiously, taking a music class in high school never crossed my mind. At the time, music was strictly an extra-curricular, whereas school was for real subjects like physics and calculus.

In 2009 I began the Electrical Engineering program at Western University. I still loved music as much as ever, though, and so made a point to keep up with all my musical endeavours on the side. I jammed with fellow musicians and wrote tunes in my spare time, but as the whole notion of ‘spare time’ began to fizzle away, something had to give. Enter option 1: if I was ever going to succeed in my program, I would need to start treating music like the hobby it was, stop my whining, and get back to my integrals and derivatives. Not before long, however, I realized that when I tried to cut music out of my life, I felt miserable. And whenever I re-introduced it, engineering seemed like a total waste of time which, in turn, also made me feel miserable. In other words, I realized the option of settling for one discipline was clearly not for me, yet progressing in both disciplines simultaneously turned out to not be so feasible either.

For the next decade I gave option 2 a shot: I dipped my feet in a multitude of disciplines bordering music and science, frantically trying to engineer (pun intended) the perfect combination of the two. I studied audio engineering, music theory, composition, orchestration, programming... I grew increasingly frustrated that I could never seem to find the right fit. All these fields interested me but as I meandered hopelessly across them, I failed to realize the answer was staring me in the face the whole time. Why was I so fixated on choosing an already well-defined, interdisciplinary branch of study when I could effectively pioneer my own instead?

Option 3 at Last

Fast forward to today and I am still obsessively learning, patching holes in my understanding of music or the various branches of formal science that interest me. Truly pioneering a new branch of study may be a ways off, but that doesn’t faze me anymore. The difference today is that I embrace this dual nature of mine and don’t let myself fall in the trap of thinking that I’m diluting my science or music-self. Neither is a hobby; they are both what I do. It took me some time to understand that not only am I allowed to hop around, combining these seemingly disparate fields of study as I see fit, but that it actually makes me more of a specialist. After all, there’s no such thing as specialization in a broad, pre-defined field anyway; by definition, a specialist must pave their own path and venture deep into some unchartered territory.

Some days I put on my science hat, and other days I put on my music hat. Rarely, but increasingly so, I find creative ways to wear both hats at the same time, like a teenager with a questionable fashion sense trying to 'find himself'. It’s great to be able to apply sound wave theory to a new composition, for example, or to put a creative twist on an otherwise clinical piece of code. I currently divide my time between studying data science, teaching piano, and recording music, but ask me next month and it could very well be something new.

I am creating this blog mainly as a reminder to myself to accept my interdisciplinary nature, though I hope my readers will find some practical tidbits to take away as well. I will post about anything and everything I am currently working on, whether that be a song, a program, or a machine learning algorithm. Maybe one day I will find a way to fully integrate my knowledge in an all-encompassing niche. And if not, I am still grateful to have both music and science in my life, and the drive to discover all their hidden gems. In either case, it doesn’t look like I’m getting off this see-saw anytime soon. The way I see it, I could put all my energy into trying to balance it out, or just let go and enjoy the ride!