5 Ways Ballet Prepared Me for My Engineering Career

September 10, 2021

People often ask me about my ballet background because it seems like strange preparation for an engineering career. To me it’s not peculiar at all. Ballet taught me many of the skills I use to excel in both the classroom and technical fields.

When Royal Ballet first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell announced her recent move from stage to Stanford University, it made me reflect on my own journey. Although my ballet career never reached the level of Stix-Brunell’s (she was with The Royal Ballet for 11 years and is retiring at her peak, at age 28!), I’ve been in the academic and engineering world for 11 years (I’m also 28). After studying as an undergraduate at MIT and as a PhD student at the University of Oxford, I’m now a senior engineer at X (formerly Google X), where I build radical new technologies to solve some of the biggest challenges facing our ocean.

Here are lessons I learned through ballet that have prepared me for my engineering career. I share them in hope that they may comfort other dancers thinking about life after dance.

1. Most top performers aren’t geniuses; they work at it.

As a young dancer I was awestruck by a girl in my Royal Ballet School summer intensive. She always seemed to execute combinations perfectly on the first try. I figured she must be a genius. Then, during the last week of the program she was assigned to my room in student housing. I noticed that every night she reviewed the combinations we danced that day, either motioning with her hands, saying them aloud or half-dancing around the room. She repeated them in the morning. Her “genius” was smart preparation, and this let her excel. She practiced, practiced, practiced, mostly when people weren’t watching. She taught me how much work it takes to achieve the skill levels I aimed for.

At MIT, many students similarly fall into the genius stereotype. One of my friends there was a former champion of the International Physics Olympiad. Our freshman year he started in junior-level physics courses and rocked all of them. Classmates were awestruck by his “natural” ability to solve complex problems quickly. But I also saw him as an extremely hard worker. Since high school, he’d been doing thousands of practice problems every week.

I’m thankful to have learned strategies from top performers rather than dismissing their skills as inherent or unobtainable. I, too, have been called a “genius,” and in response I emphasize the teams and resources around me and years of practice. If it weren’t for ballet, I’m not sure I would appreciate all the work that goes into making science and engineering skills look effortless.

2. Jealousy doesn’t serve you unless you convert it into inspiration.

It’s easy to be envious of a talented classmate; maybe she has quicker jumps, better balance, better flexibility. But succumbing to jealousy not only feels horrible, it also makes your own dancing worse. In ballet class I learned to convert envy into inspiration and motivation. I’d think, How lucky am I to train with someone I admire? I’d also put on blinders to stop comparing myself to others and focus on my own improvements.

Fast-forward: I’m at MIT doing the final assignment for an Intro to Python course, where I learned to code for the first time. We had to code a game of Tetris within the allotted lab session. Some of my classmates were already expert programmers, so I knew they would ace the assignment in 20 minutes. I could strive for that eventually, but I knew that in order for me to complete my own assignment, given my skill level at the time, I’d have to put blinders on and stay focused. (One classmate not only programmed a perfect game, he’d added special key-codes that formed an image on the falling blocks!)

Jealous emotions would have distracted me from finishing. Just like at the ballet barre, concentrating on my own work let me feel proud of what I’d accomplished, and then be inspired by a peer who was ahead. Now, the technical knowledge and experience I gained help me every day in my professional career.

In a large auditorium, Grace Young performs a giant sissone fermé with her back leg bent in attitude and her arms in first arabesque. She wears a mauve dance dress and her long blonde hair down. Behind her are rows of auditorium seats.
The author during her dancing days. Stephen Baranovics, Courtesy Grace Young

3. Managing energy is the key to working well.

Not surprisingly, I got the most out of ballet class when my mind was fully engaged and focused. Usually this was due to a good night’s rest, healthy diet and getting into the right mindset. What helped me stay there was knowing what tasks were suited to different energy levels. I’d use low-energy time to mark a combination (even just in my head) or stretch, and reserve strong energy for full-out run-throughs.

Dancers learn that energy management is the key to time management and productivity. With engineering, it was harder at first to tell whether I was in the right mindset. I wasn’t wobbling in a pirouette, but maybe I’d zone out while reading. Eventually I figured out how to use low-energy time productively—for example, by reviewing flash cards or organizing material. This way when I had strong energy, I put it towards solving challenging problems.

4. Strengthening weaknesses requires conscious effort.

Before ballet class, dancers warm up on their own. I found it tempting to use this time to ease into what I was already good at, like splits or hamstring stretches. But this was not what I needed. I had to make a conscious effort to add exercises that addressed my weaknesses, like turnout. Doing so set me up for a far better class than if I’d put the same time into my strengths.

Fast-forward to calculus class. One of our exams covered roughly 80 percent integrals (which I’m good at) and 20 percent theorems (which I needed to practice). So I buckled down and studied the theorems until I understood them as well as I could. Then, when the test came, both sections were a breeze. Realizing my weakness, and then making the effort to improve it, was something I’d already learned to do at the beginning of every ballet class.

5. Balance emotions and logic to find motivation.

When dancers are asked what motivates their work, they often describe their love for the art and the feelings it brings them. It’s not logically clear why we enjoy ballet and devote so much time and energy to it—and, frankly, why we endure so much pain for it. We adore it and accept that it enriches our lives.

When you ask a scientist or an engineer the same question, they’re often expected to have a purely logical answer. For example, “I study the ocean because it provides half of the oxygen we breathe and regulates our climate.” Facts and figures may help me prioritize certain topics or give rationale to a funding agency, but ultimately what motivates me is the emotional connection to my work. Like an artist, I may seek to find a creative flow or explore learning for learning’s sake. The emotional and creative forces guiding my engineering work are just as powerful to me as the logical ones.