I’ve always wondered: how did somebody I meet end up doing the job (or jobs) that they’re doing? After many of these exchanges, the most telling answers always seem to involve early preferences that they’d chosen to act upon.
It’s what you preferred to do when you were bored, where you turned “to make something” when inspired, or the ways you reacted when you’re put in an uncomfortable spot. These decisions reveal almost instinctual affinities, the pull of your strongest magnets. Almost always, they’re more intuitive than rational and you end up trusting them enough to turn them into springboards.
Recent evidence has helped to confirm this hypothesis.
Some family members and friends of Bo Burnham repeatedly made fun of him as a kid. They were amused that he acted “kind of gay” and, by way of response, he proclaimed some of his work-defining preferences not by starting a diversity workshop on his front porch (signaling his flowering desire for a career in HR) or by researching “conversion camps” he might attend (sensing the power of immersive experiences to improve himself and the gravitational pull of maybe working for an investment bank or a major law firm one day). No, Burnham didn’t respond by doing either of these things.
Instead, he reacted to the hurt or alarm he felt by leaning into his family member’s and friends’ conformist attitudes and spoofing them (along with his role in triggering their intolerance) in videos he made in his childhood bedroom, posting them on YouTube, and writing the first chapter of what was to become his viral success story.
Burnham’s early-and-often preference for turning uncomfortable situations into comedy—and then sharing his unexpected point of view as widely as possible—had a kind of apotheosis two weeks ago when his Netflix special called Bo Burnham: Inside (about his discomfort at having to relieve his isolation during the pandemic through the screens of his devices) received 6 Emmy Award nominations only six weeks after it was first released (which on top of everything else has to be some kind of record) however terrific it frequently was.
I didn’t know Burnham before watching his comedy special but almost immediately wanted to know how he first set sail for the strangely hilarious harbor he was sharing with us. Still in his early teens, filming his reactions to other people’s judgments in his bedroom, and then wanting to get his response to as many people as possible—Burnham had been drawn to blaring situational comedy like a moth to a flame before he could probably explain it. And when he was pulled in that direction, he proceeded to act upon “what that little inside voice” was telling him to do. Now that voice had been given what some might call The Ultimate Amplification.
Because at least half of my work today is writing about work, I often ask people I encounter “how they happened to get into…,” and not infrequently, I hear stories about childhood affinities and the aptitudes that helped to further them. Discounting the occasional savvy marketer who has built an “engaging origin story” around his or her subsequent success, there plainly seems to be more than mere coincidence in the “follow-your-early- preferences” Theory of Workplace Fit. In addition to everyone else that I’ve heard from, it surely applies to my career choices, including what family members and random observers told me “I should do when I grow up” once they had a sense of where I was telling them (subliminally of course) that I was headed.
So on Friday morning, after I’d listened to an interview with a neuroscientist who’d wanted to be either a professional dancer or a scientist as a kid—and then heard him say that the same brain circuits which enable the birds he studies to vocalize may also enable both humans and birds to dance—I knew that I’d be writing to you today about his preference-driven origin story.
Was it a coincidence, or something far deeper, that brought him to a career fork between “obviously dissimilar” jobs early on, but found him discovering, at mid-career, that he’s always been interested in (and his preferences had always somehow involved) investigating the mechanics that make both of these jobs possible?
The interview with Erich Jarvis (who is a professor at Rockefeller University studying the neurobiology of vocal learning) was on a podcast called The Pulse. The tagline for the pod describes it as “an adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world,” and since I listen fairly often, I can report that in terms of “adventure” and “unexpected” it often delivers, and certainly did this week.
Jarvis concentrates his research on how birds produce song with the broader aim of finding solutions to human speech disorders in the ways that certain song birds, including parrots and hummingbirds, learn how to sing by imitating other birds and the real world sounds that they encounter. As he delves into the brain circuitry that enables these birds to “learn” their speech patterns, he hopes to find ways that can enable similar circuits (or molecular pathways) in the human brain to fire again as intended once they’ve broken down.
As the interview unfolded, I learned that Jarvis grew up in New York City. His mom was a gospel singer and his dad a musician with a deep curiosity about science. Encouraged by their artistic inclinations, he became a dance major at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City, leading to internships at the Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Alley Dance Company. Notwithstanding his talent as a dancer, Jarvis recalled his deepening fascination with science, which he took from both his father and a high school biology course. On the eve of college, he wondered if he might make more of a difference to others as a scientist than as a dancer. He chose the path of science of course but made a point of mentioning that he still dances as much as he can, including in the studio that he maintained in his apartment during the pandemic-related shutdowns in New York.
Elaborating on his research, Jarvis mentioned a couple of widely-viewed video clips featuring performing birds on line. He told us that one of them, featuring a parakeet named Disco, illustrated how birds can learn to mimic surprisingly complex speech patterns. As with all birds and animals that have learned how to mimic, they do so by storing sounds they have heard in their auditory memories, transferring these sound cards through a motor pathway to their voice boxes (a syrinx in birds, a larynx in humans), hearing themselves vocalize, and then practicing until their memories and their voices are aligned—in a sensory feedback loop. When I got to check it out, I had to admit that Disco’s feedback loop was, indeed, pretty amazing.
But then Jarvis made his own surprising disclosure: “Only species that can learn how to imitate sound can learn how to dance.” Apparently, in Jarvis’s corner of of the scientific community, interest in this possible overlap was only piqued after a cockatoo named Snowball was seen by millions dancing to the Backstreet Boys and revealing, among many other things, how clickbait can have entirely unintended consequences once it finds its own feedback loop.
During the scientific debate that Snowball triggered, Jarvis said that he began to extrapolate from what he had already learned about the neurocircuitry of vocalizing animals and humans.
Are there specialized connections that take sound from the ears and integrate them into the brain circuits that control the muscles of the body, [stimulating not only the vocal cords in animals and birds, but also other responses in their bodies]? If those specialized connections and genes that control those connections are the same ones that gave rise to the spoken language circuit…it would suggest that the mechanism of learning how to dance [actually] came from language. What’s interesting about this is that some cultures don’t distinguish dance from music.
Jarvis’s podcast interview never direcly linked this hypothesis to his own career fork in high school, or to the fact that the same mind-body connections might be integral to both of them. Instead, the coincidence (or congruence) just floated about in the ether for a few seconds before his interview ended.
I tend to think there is something behind most coincidences, in this instance how genes and environmental factors may have embedded the career preferences that Jarvis had in high school far more deeply than he ever could have known for sure.
I think the good work of his life—as prefigured by his early preferences for dance and science—may have always been about the drive to discover how his mind, was telling his body, what it should do.
The image up top is of a 2006 painting by David Hockney called “Wheat Field Beyond the Tunnel,” one of many paintings he’s done of paths in rural England and what lies beyond them.
This post was adapted from my July 25, 2021 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning and occasionally I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe by leaving your email address in the column to the right.