In last week’s blog post, Michael McNeill wrote about the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop we took together—and how it helped us discover a new way of looking at the world. I’ve had a few more musings since, as follows: The left hemisphere of the human brain is charged with risk assessment, due diligence, symbolic and logical processes, and a strong task focus. We’d never get anything done without it. The left hemisphere is also the seat of judgment, including “I can’t” and various kinds of mental self-flagellation. The right hemisphere perceives things as they are—pre-codifying–and sees everything as possible. We couldn’t create or love without it. The right brain is a fabulous hang-out, though spend too much time here and the fog may roll in. We’re always using both hemispheres, of course; the trick is to integrate and balance the two for optional functioning.
Here’s how this relates to the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain class. Everyone in the class was a rank beginner at drawing. The younger participants frequently went into paroxysms of “This is terrible. I am terrible. I am paralyzed by my terribleness,” etc. There was lots of emotional energy expended in left brain self-assaults. After lunch and a walk, however, the younger participants returned to the room, focused on what they were doing, and produced remarkably cool pictures. Go figger!
Michael and I were the oldsters in the class. I knew I had never exhibited a whit of talent in the domain of drawing, but I didn’t actually care. I’m accomplished at other things, so it felt really cool to play around with something I’m not already good at. Michael was pretty much the same. We listened to the lectures, tried to apply the tools, and consistently surprised ourselves with the quality of our output. To tell you the truth, I was thrilled. I had no idea I could draw like that—or that drawing is not a function of magic or talent, but rather letting the right hemisphere rip on seeing shapes, shading, and relationships while keeping the left brain busy measuring angles and proportions.
And now Michael and I are wandering around our world seeing shapes and shadows and relationships everywhere…which is slightly psychedelic, I gotta say.
Like our young colleagues, we surprised ourselves with the quality of our drawings. Of course we spent time along the way thinking “How the hell am I going to do this?” But we didn’t let the emotional charge of judgment hijack the learning process. Because self-judgment is not fun. And if something’s not fun, why would you do it?
As a child, production values were a big consideration in my family—e.g., if you don’t do something well, don’t do it in
public! When I was 40, inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer singing “Making Whoopie” on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys, I decided to take singing lessons just because I like to sing, even though talent in this area had never surfaced before. My new standard became: If you don’t do something well (but it interests you), do it as much as possible and you will improve—maybe not all the way to “good,” but certainly to “better.” Thanks to that relaxed standard, my next few decades were suffused with the joy of singing with gospel choirs backed by excellent horn sections. (Alas, though, no sitting on a piano in red sequins—not yet, anyway.)
And those standards are even lower now. When you’ve been successful and possess mastery in one or more bodies of knowledge, you have nothing left to prove. So why not sign up to learn about something that’s always intrigued you? Our brains benefit from taking on something challenging enough that we’re likely to fail at in the process of improving. Building confidence and self-esteem is not the point–we Baby Boomers already did that. Rather, the point is deleting “I can’t” from our vocabularies and trying something new. You might be thrilled with your newfound skill. You might tank big time. But really, who cares?
Maturity has its advantages.