Curious Questions: Is being left-handed an advantage?

In days gone by, left-handed children were made to write with the ‘correct’ hand — but these days we understand that being left-handed is no barrier to greatness. In fact, there are endless examples of history's greatest musicians, artists and statesmen being left-handed. So much so that you'll start to wonder if it's actually an advantage.

‘Oh, you’re left-handed…’ How many times have you been spoken to as if it is an affliction to bear? Yet countless examples of the great and the good have found it no impediment to their role. The Prince of Wales is left-handed, as was his great-grandfather George IV and Queen Victoria before them. ‘It is a family trend, I think,’ the heir to the throne has said. ‘Apparently, about 10% of the world’s population is left-handed, so I think I am in good company.’

Being left-handed certainly did no harm to Sir Winston Churchill, and he was in ‘good company’ across the pond: six US Presidents since the Second World War have been left-handed. These are Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose reply to those mentioning it was always the same: ‘That’s right, I’m a lefty — get used to it.’

Of course, we have our share of left-handed politicians today (not necessarily reflected in their politics). ‘Being left-handed is definitely not a handicap,’ ‘lefty’ Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister David Cameron has said. ‘You still have to sign things and take responsibility for them.’

“John Lennon, who taught himself to play left-handed just so he could help me”

It’s no barrier to holding a pen, but what about a paintbrush? Negative: neither Leonardo da Vinci nor Michelangelo appears to have suffered any ill effect on their artistic skills.

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Perhaps it makes mastering a musical instrument more of a challenge? The music world has been blessed with much left-handed talent, from Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Ringo Starr and Cole Porter to composers Beethoven and Mozart.

Given that the names on this page already include some of the very greatest painters, thinkers and musicians of all time, it begs the obvious question: is being left-handed actually an advantage? Studies show that left-handed people tend to have more developed right hemispheres of their brains — and the right side is associated with creativity and artistic flair.

Yet Sir Paul McCartney has confessed that being of the left-handed persuasion came with its difficulties. ‘I didn’t find it easy to play guitar,’ he admitted. ‘I was helped a lot by John Lennon, who taught himself to play left-handed just so he could help me. It was a brilliant gesture.

‘When you grow up left-handed, you don’t really think there could be problems with something like playing guitar, but most things are made with right-handed people in mind.’

“I doubt I would have been half as good a player if I had been right-handed”

The late Peter O’Toole had no issue with being left-handed, despite experiencing some of the barbaric measures once inflicted on children in an attempt to make them use the ‘correct’ hand.

‘I have never really had difficulties with it except that everything seems to have been made for right-handed people, so I had problems with using scissors, getting into cars and that kind of thing,’ he said. ‘The annoying and hurtful thing is that as a boy, I suffered for it as I went to a Catholic school and the nuns actually beat me to try and make me use my right hand — it was unbelievable. I was not left-handed just to spite them.

‘I don’t consider that I have been let down by life simply because I am left-handed,’ the actor continued. ‘I actually think it improved my cricket! I doubt I would have been half as good a player if I had been right-handed. As a left-arm bowler, I was far more confusing to enemy batsmen.’

O’Toole was spot on: while only 10% of the population is left-handed, 20% of international cricketers — the conventional sporting wisdom being that lefties make for more awkward opponents since they demand bowlers and batsmen to deal with different angles of attack. In professional baseball it’s even more pronounced, with almost half of the players in the USA’s MLB being left-handed — though there is a significant advantage in running to first base if you’re starting off from the other side of the plate.

The late Brazilian footballer Pelé found he had to put in the hours to become a legend on the pitch. ‘I had to work extra hard to be able to play with both feet, but I have never tried to be anything other than left-handed for everything else,’ he reflected. ‘I’ve often had people show surprise when I sign an autograph. They say, “Oh, you’re left-handed”, as if I have an illness. It is very funny really. It has never bothered me — I like to be a little different.’

While Pelé seems to think working harder was a cross he had to bear, it could could equally be argued that doing so probably propelled him to greater heights than he might otherwise have reached. The fact that Diego Maradona was also left-handed, as is Lionel Messi, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that being a lefty might be a benefit.

Musician Bob Geldof, also naturally gifted with left-handedness, has the last word: ‘I don’t think it makes any difference whether you are right- or left-handed, as long as your right hand knows what your left hand is doing — and not many people have mastered that yet!’

27 of history’s most famous left-handers

  • Julius Caesar
  • Alexander the Great
  • Joan of Arc
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Winston Churchill
  • Prince William
  • Harry S. Truman
  • Gerald Ford
  • Ronald Reagan
  • George H. W. Bush
  • Bill Clinton
  • Barack Obama
  • Mark Twain
  • H. G. Wells
  • Albert Schweitzer
  • Mozart
  • Beethoven
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Michelangelo
  • Pelé
  • Diego Maradona
  • Lionel Messi
  • Paul McCartney
  • Ringo Starr
  • David Bowie
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Peter O’Toole

Reporting: Bernard Bale and Toby Keel