When I was in my early 20s, making my own life decisions, it seemed to me that the brain and mind was the most interesting thing I could spend my time thinking about. I wanted to do neuroscience research. But at the time, I was also heavily into music. I'd been playing keyboard, singing and writing music, and was playing in a band in bars and clubs in Philadelphia and in nearby areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I enjoyed it a lot, and part of me wanted to pursue music as a career.
But I had some doubts about it. I knew that I didn’t want to end up as a wedding musician. I’d done that a bunch of times already, and could see it would quickly lose its charm. But even imagining the best-case scenario, a recording contract, it seemed to me that popular music is an area where you’re most valued in your youth. At a certain point, age would work against me. I thought it would be more satisfying to choose a road where age and experience could be a plus and not a minus. That’s a funny thing to think about when you’re in your early 20s.
And then I remember playing with my band somewhere for a week or so in western Pennsylvania. I was having a great time. I enjoyed the performances, and the camaraderie with the other guys (and one gal) in the band. In the afternoons, I’d sit by myself in the near-empty bar and read about the brain and mind while waiting to do a sound check for the gig that night. It occurred to me that I'd miss it if I didn't immerse myself in brain/mind issues.
I ended up chasing both rabbits. While I was in California working toward a PhD, I was also playing with a band. When I moved back to the east coast to do post-doctoral work in neuroscience, I’d take an hour train ride into NYC once a week to rehearse and play gigs with a group there. I still hadn’t committed 100% to a direction. After the post-doc, when I got a position at Columbia, I was doing everything I could just to keep my head above water setting up a research lab, teaching classes, and all the side work that went along with each of these. There was no way I could play with a band at the same time.
I remember once talking to a guy about my internal rivalry between music and neuroscience, and my hesitation to choose one over the other. He told me there was a Russian saying that “If you try to catch two rabbits, you won’t catch either”. But I’ve always liked chasing two rabbits. I still do. Setback in science? “Well I can always be a musician”. A musical gig doesn’t go well? “Well, there’s always science”.
Over time, there are fewer forks in the road. Choosing which amusement ride to go on is one thing. Getting off the ride you’re on is another. Especially when the ride’s paying your salary. But I still maintain a space in my mind where I don't define myself too narrowly. I won’t be a professional musician, but maybe I’ll write a novel. Or maybe I’ll stay with neuroscience. Or maybe I’ll move to Spain and figure out what to do once I get there. I’m working on my Spanish every day just in case.