The advantage of being me

From The Advantage Of Dual-Identities (A Case Study of Nabokov), I bring you this quote:

It’s also important to note that the advantage of having a “dual-identity” – being both a novelist and a scientist, for instance – isn’t limited to Nabokov. According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

So as a female, half-asian all-canadian researcher, I’m clearly better at creativity than all those boring white dude researchers?

Angela Montenegro from Bones… I don’t even know exactly where to begin on this. So I’m going talk about Bones for a minute. I’ve been watching it with my sister lately while we do other things (crochet, do mending, wander around looking for things in an mmo, eat dinner, etc.) and the other day she pointed out that she loves how the show deals with Angela, or really, how it doesn’t. See, Angela Montenegro is the team’s artist: she does sketches of the victims. But she doesn’t stop there: she also coaxes data off broken camcorders and swallowed flash drives doing digital forensic work. She’s an adept computer programmer who writes software that helps visualize and model what happened during a crime. What’s cool about Bones is that it’s totally taken for granted that she can be an artist and a coder. (And really, pretty much whatever else she wants to be.)

So I guess while I fundamentally agree that having multiple “identities” is a huge asset to my work and creative abilities, I sort of feel like… why are they making such a big deal about this, as if it’s some hugely abnormal thing. Why can’t they just accept that Angela can draw and code? Why do people insist on compartmentalizing people into single skill sets? I can drive a car and code and no one thinks that’s weird, but plenty of people have commented with surprise that I can edit a magazine (yes, I used to do this) and write code. Hello, world?

The article just makes me a little uncomfortable. This worst part is the paragraph about how the US will be overrun by mixed-race folk like me with superior creative skills — awkward racial superiority with a different spin — but even the study methodology doesn’t quite sit right with me at a first reading. But maybe the article is simply a journalistic reflection of research into of a real logical fallacy that people often employ: the assumption that one must specialize in only one skill to be the best person one can be. That’s one of those things that might be true for programs, but I really haven’t seen much evidence of it being true for people.

Despite my issues with the article, I think it’s got a nice take-away message: it’s a-ok, normal, and maybe even superior to have and use your multiple identities. And don’t let incredulous folk tell you otherwise.

This was originally posted on my personal blog.

22 thoughts on “The advantage of being me

  1. Restructure!

    The design of the Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks study makes me very sad, in which “Asian-Americans” cook good fusion dishes. Also part of the design:

    Based on these ratings, we picked 16 most typical Asian ingredients (e.g., soybean sauce and wasabi) and 16 most typical American ingredients (e.g., barbecue sauce and parmesan cheese).

    Next, we assembled three different ingredient sets, with the actual jars, bottles, and boxes arranged on trays: (1) Asian ingredients only, (2) American ingredients only, and (3) half Asian and half American ingredients.

    This is so racist and Othering. :(

    Anyway, it used to be normal for people to have different skills, and for arts and science to be one thing. Now our educational system trains people to specialize in disciplines, or trains people for specific jobs.

    I was thinking about specialization vs. generalization, and I think (single) specialization is beneficial for the larger group you are a part of (a company, society, etc.), but it isn’t beneficial for the actual person.

    Back to the topic of multiple identities: It’s not really the case that only Asian Americans and female engineers have multiple identities. Asians and women appear to have extra identities because we are Othered. It’s not like White Americans are raceless and male engineers are genderless.

    1. Terri

      Not only othering but… it feels like they’re mistaking “knowledge of how to use something” for “creativity” — if I was presented with a bunch of random spices and stuff I’d never used, I’m sure I’d have more trouble concocting a good dish than I would if I was presented with ingredients with which I was more familiar. I mean, if I’d never used ginger in a dish, it’d be pretty easy to get it wrong, no? That’s more about experience than about creativity.

  2. the scrum mistress

    It really highlights another stereo type – that programming or engineering or other “non-artistic” professions don’t require creativity. Whatever that means! What sort of scientist would someone with out an imagination make? Not a very good one. They might make a good lab grunt or number cruncher but that is about it.

    Vision and creativity are essential in any field for success. That being said my alter ego would not be very successful as a ceramic artist or chef if I didn’t have a certain methodical and logical bent. Baking is chemistry dammit!

    I suppose in regards to Bones it also ties into the typical male fantasy of an incredibly sexy, clever, geeky woman with a squishy artistic feminine side. But can she make a sammich?

    1. Terri

      In this case, Angela, despite her serious tech skills, is not presented as a geeky woman, which is part of what makes her interesting.

      I’ve known people with tech skills who weren’t traditionally geeky (and geeky folk who had very little in the way of tech skills) so it doesn’t strike me as odd to see it in a person, but television portrayals seem to tie those two together a lot more (probably *for* the male fantasy geek as you suggest).

  3. Kelly

    I’m a coder AND an artist, too, and people give me the weirdest looks all the time. I don’t know… it’s exactly like they think it’s not possible to be logical and creative in the same lifetime. But there is a lot of creativity in my coding and certainly a great deal of math in the fractal art I do, and even some freakin’ geometry in the acrylics and watercolors. They are slightly soothed knowing all my art is abstract, but still uncomfortable with me.

    I’m really tired of trying to explain why I’m a whole, balanced and interesting person to people who sincerely believe I should have stayed in the secretarial pool so I could have enough time to cook gourmet meals for my family. Though… come to think of it… I do love telling people like that how uninteresting and unfulfilling cooking is for me.

  4. AMM

    I don’t see this is having “multiple identities.” I see this as having multiple independent characteristics. Would you say that someone with hazel eyes, blond hair, and dark olive skin has “multiple identities”? Would you say that a person (male or female) who trades equities during the day and comes home and reads his/her kids to sleep at night has “multiple identities”? (Multiple roles, maybe.)

    I see this as a case where society (or a lot of people, anyway) wanting to put people in pigeonholes. They want to be able to take one visible characteristic and assume they know everything about you based on that one characteristic. If you’re female and blond, you’re required to be stupid. If you wear glasses, you’re supposed to be brainy and socially inept. Etc. And then they get all weird when you confront them with some way that you don’t fit the stereotype that they’ve assigned to you.

    1. Terri

      Yeah. That’s the thing. They’re talking about multiple identities like being into butterflies and writing… and then all of a sudden they go into this big piece about gender and race? It feels like all of a sudden the article has become astounded that one can walk and breathe *at the same time*.

      The whole article just seems a little off as a result.

      1. Catherine

        I’m defending this article more than I want to, because I really don’t think it’s very good. But Nabakov wasn’t just “into butterflies and writing”–he did serious professional work in both fields. The glide in the article from profession to race, I agree, makes it sound like they’re equivalent, which they’re obviously not. But profession is actually an important identity characteristic for many people, and I don’t think it’s fair to equate a characteristic like scientifically studying and publishing about butterflies with something like liking fried chicken.

        Interestingly, and kind of strangely, the Wired article never mentions Nabakov’s dual identities as a Russian and then an American and the fact that he did well-regarded work in both Russian and English.

        But, going back to AMM’s comment, I think the whole point of identity integration is about being able to avoid stereotypes by accepting all parts of one’s identity as compatible and being able to perform them more or less simultaneously. I think it actually does make a big difference if someone sees herself as a blond woman AND a scientist, or if she sees herself as a scientist EVEN THOUGH she’s a blond woman. It also makes a big difference, of course, whether others are able to hold those ideas concurrently.

        1. Restructure!

          But, going back to AMM’s comment, I think the whole point of identity integration is about being able to avoid stereotypes by accepting all parts of one’s identity as compatible and being able to perform them more or less simultaneously. I think it actually does make a big difference if someone sees herself as a blond woman AND a scientist, or if she sees herself as a scientist EVEN THOUGH she’s a blond woman.

          It’s true that there is a difference, but being a blonde woman is not a skill. How does one perform being a blonde woman? You can, but that would be performing a stereotype.

  5. Catherine

    But, Terri, isn’t the main point not that people have multiple identities, but whether they are integrated , as evidenced by the ways in which they self-identify? That people do better work when different aspects of their selves are not divided by W.E.B. DuBois’ veil?

    I do agree that the Wired article is not well structured, and that generalizing from a genius like Nabokov to the average person seems rather suspect, though it kind of makes sense if the main point is supposed to be that critics in both fiction and lepidoptery should have been more accepting of his working in more than one field. And I also agree that the remark to the effect that the U.S. is becoming home to a super-race (with no special effort, even!) is obnoxious.

    1. Terri

      I think your point about integration is a good way to attempt to make sense out of a dubious article, but I’m not sure that’s really what it was trying to say because I’m not exactly sure what they were trying to say. It feels like the article didn’t exactly have a coherent point to make, and while they start out ok with fiction and lepidoptery (both in many ways chosen identities) they then muddied the waters with a lot of not-really-chosen identities (gender and racial identities are much more imposed) and research regarding those. With things like gender and race, “identity” integration isn’t nearly as unlikely because I don’t get a choice about my racial and gender characteristics being known while I do anything in person. I can choose to never tell my research colleagues that I know how to conduct an orchestra if I so choose, but the minute I present at a conference I can’t avoid them knowing that I’m short, female, and a visual minority (unless I’m willing to go way above and beyond in avoiding disclosure).

      … so I’m not really sure what the point of comparing the two is, given the completely different implications. But I agree, the one nice reading is to just say that the article hopes that people will be less critical of those who have multiple identities.

      1. Catherine

        I think that Jonah Lehrer really just wanted to write about the admittedly-interesting news snippet about lepidopterists finding new evidence to support Nabakov’s previous work–interesting because Nabakov was super-famous in a different field. But that’s not really a topic for Wired, so halfway through he took a left turn with, “How did butterfly research improve the art?” At which point, the topic became that wankiest theme of all bad tech writing (imo): “How can I use this to optimize myself?” And then he took a kitchen-sink approach to filling up the rest of the article.

  6. AnneC

    I’m an engineer (by degree and work experience) but I’ve also always liked art, and can draw reasonably well. Engineering and art have never seemed to me like “opposites”, and the idea of seeing myself as having “dual artist/engineer identities” is bizarre, IMO. Random anecdote: occasionally, at my last job, people would see either a work-related drawing I’d done or a doodle on my notebook cover and frequently they’d ask questions like, “Why aren’t you an artist (rather than an engineer)?” or “What are you doing in engineering if you can draw like that?”

    And…just…gah. I know these people weren’t suggesting I sucked at engineering or anything, but seriously, I never had a clue where they were getting this idea that if you COULD do one thing you either ought to do just that thing ALL THE TIME, or that certain skills were “weird” to see in combination with other skills.

    1. Terri

      On a related note, I think a lot of people have trouble understanding that you might enjoy doing something but not want to specialize in it or do it for money. I often get similar questions when people realize that I do things like design and make cutesy hat patterns in my spare time, “Oh, that’s so cute, why don’t you have a business selling those?” I understand, they want to compliment me on a skill that that they feel I’m doing at a sufficiently professional level that it could be sold, but… it can be very frustrating. A hat that takes me an hour or two to do would sell for less than my hourly wage as a teaching assistant. And it sometimes feels like a devaluing of my other work (e.g. “I want to buy one of your hats and I don’t really care/understand that you’re a valuable researcher making strides on web security that could actually affect my personal online safety way more than this hat would ever affect my life.”)

      1. AnneC

        Ohh yeah. I know exactly what you mean. I make duct tape wallets for fun, and people repeatedly ask me why I’m not selling them, etc. Which, as you noted, is probably meant to be complimentary but it does get annoying. There’s a whole world of complexity involved in selling stuff, period, let alone making a business out of it. And there are some things I just really want to keep squarely in the “fun/hobby” zone as opposed to the “ways to make money” zone. Not only because of logistics, but also because (as you also noted) crafts frankly aren’t all that lucrative, especially when you figure in cost of materials and time/labor needed to make them, etc. IMO, if someone is seriously suggesting I try and make a living on DIY crafts they clearly don’t know much about how rare it is for anyone to actually do that!

    2. John

      A classic crossover was E E “Doc” Smith, a fairly prolific SF author and founder of the “space opera” genre, and doughnut technologist (possibly the person who worked out how to get the sugar to stick).

  7. Carina :)

    This is really not a super-intelligent comment, but…

    I love that you said “Hello, world” right after you talked about writing code. I don’t know if you did that on purpose, but it definitely made me chuckle.

    Also, it is strange that these people were making such a big deal out of having multiple skills…I feel like that’s kind of expected in the job market nowadays. My concentration in college is in journalism, and they talk about the need for multiple skills all the time in classes…I know that’s just one example, but I’m sure it’s the same deal in many other disciplines as well.

    1. Terri

      It made me laugh too, which is why it’s there. :) Glad someone else found it funny!

      I think the specialization/diversification argument has been going a long time. My undergrad supervisor in math often suggested that he felt mathematicians could do their best work if they had a broad base of knowledge so that they could apply mathematics to a variety of problems. While I was working in his office, he’d get calls about footprint analysis and calls about mandatory retirement ages, all while we were working on an algorithm that could be used to help determine optimal placement for fire stations so that the city was best protected… He was able to work on a lot of interesting problems because he was willing to go outside his specialities and work with domain experts. So yeah, it’s true in at least one other discipline! You’d think that computer science would have a similar attitude, since we often build tools and solve domain-specific problems.

      But he also often commented that there was a lot of pressure to specialize, which is a bit of an issue for academia, so there’s clearly some conflict there too.

      1. @thorfi

        The most effective programmers I know from the early 90s when I was at uni all did mathematics or engineering degrees, not computer science ones.

        I’m not sure what the state of the art of computer science academia is now, but I do still get the impression when I’ve had to hire software engineers that I still get the better quality ones out of degree courses that have nothing to do with computer science, at least down here in Australia.

        I don’t really know why that is the case, though. I think it is that they are used to analysing problems in wider domains, not just “computer science”, but that’s purely speculation on my part.

        The wide-experience vs deep-but-narrow thing definitely pops up all over. I think there’s a place for both – ultimately I’m never going to understand how to write a new cryptography algorithm, simply because I don’t have the time to invest in getting that level of specific knowledge, but OTOH, I can apply any existing cryptography technology to computer security and software engineering across a huge wide range of industries if I’m called to.

  8. John

    I think it’s common that someone who’s really good at one thing will be pretty good at a variety of things; someone with just one narrow set of skills (and unskilled in all other areas) is rare (savantism). I suspect there’s a connection with the “g” factor (general intelligence; see Spearman’s research), and that with a reasonable level of that it’s then a matter of how many areas you have the inclination and time to apply yourself to, and aptitude to particular things will mostly affect how much time it takes to reach a good level.

  9. Nick Schmalenberger

    I think as population has increased and the social structure of civilization has deepened, there have been more specialists and specialties needed, but more generalists are always needed also. Most people aren’t free thinking enough to appreciate them because integration is an implicit need, but they are absolutely needed, as is fighting xenophobia in general.

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