How Being a Musician Prepared Me for My Dream Career
Music is something to be approached with integrity, not something to be turned on and off like tap water…”
I started playing the cello when I was 10 years old.
I spent countless hours sitting on a chair doing finger gymnastics. I sacrificed every summer going to “band camp.” I spent every Saturday schlepping to New York City for an extra day of classes at Juilliard. I missed my senior prom to play in a concert. I performed solo, in chamber ensembles, and in orchestras all over the U.S., Europe, and Asia. I played with incredible musicians—many who are now world-renowned soloists or members of major orchestras.
But at the age of 26, I walked away from my musical career—with no regrets. While I no longer play the cello, I’ve taken the lessons with me every step of the way—including my current endeavor as the co-founder of BRIKA, a curated shopping platform for emerging artisans and designers.
Looking back on those years, I can say that although I was intensely passionate about playing, I always felt I somehow didn’t really belong. I always craved something more than just music, and I was someone who had always been interdisciplinary in my approach (who some might call unfocused!).
Ultimately, I was more compelled by my experiences trying out classical music management and investment banking in between my summers during college—at which point I realized that perhaps a life playing my cello exclusively wasn’t really for me.
What I did know, though, was that I would always harbor a creative thread in me, and that I would find a way to exercise that in some capacity professionally.
So, what has being a musician taught me about running a startup?
In short, everything. But more specifically, it taught me these three crucial lessons.
1. Discipline and Focus
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You know the saying! Practicing is the name of the game when you’re a musician. There is most definitely talent involved, but putting hours and hours into honing your skills is truly the only way to success. In his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that 10,000 hours is the magic number. I most definitely spent 10,000 hours practicing. Maybe 10,001.
Truly, the same goes for running a company. You can be smart, talented, ambitious, sure, but especially in the early days, much of your success depends on truly dedicating all of your time and energy into your company. Times can be intensely challenging, with shifting priorities pulling you in multiple directions and requiring you to push yourself physically and emotionally all in the name of pursuing your passion.
I believe my drive and determination to keep going and to stay focused when times get tough stems from all those hours spent perfecting little tiny black notes on a page.
2. The Value of Preparation
When I was 16, I was invited to play as a soloist with a major orchestra. I remember feeling anxious about this performance, and so I spent even more hours practicing for this concert than I had ever before. The result? It was my best performance yet.
Now, whether it’s an investor pitch, a major strategic partnership meeting, or a conference panel, I do the same thing. I put more time into preparing. I think through questions I might receive or issues I might face. I go in feeling, if possible, over-prepared. And I wholeheartedly believe that time (the quality, too, of course) spent preparing delivers direct results.
3. Trust in Others
Solo performances were always a thrill, but my most favorite way to play was via chamber ensembles—particularly in trios or quartets. In ensemble playing, it’s all about trusting the instincts and emotions of your fellow members—whether they are playing loud or soft, fast or slow, with emotion or flat. You just have to go with the flow and adjust accordingly.
As a startup founder, I find that one day I am doing things I know 80% about and 20% I have no clue about. On other days, it feels like the exact opposite. The only way I know how to survive is to trust someone’s judgement and then go on the journey together. I am insanely lucky to have a co-founder, Kena, and a small but mighty team, who I can do this with!
Many people ask me, “So you just quit? Cold turkey?” And I did. For me, I couldn’t just play my cello for the sake of playing. It felt all or nothing to me at the time. But today, I am applying all of my passion and dedication to BRIKA, in many of the same ways (countless hours, maniacal preparation, deep dedication, and placing my faith in others) that I did when I was growing up playing my cello.
Now that I am a mother to two small children, I think I can bring it out again slowly to play for them and give them the deep appreciation for music that I still have. But no matter what, I can look back and say that so much of who I am and how I do things today are inherently tied to my life experiences as a musician yesterday.
Photo of instruments courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Jen Lee Koss is a co-founder of BRIKA, an online shopping destination that celebrates modern craft, storytelling, and the belief that our lives are as beautiful as we wish to make them. A Juilliard-trained cellist, Jen has a knack for numbers and closing deals—having spent 10+ years working in finance and private equity. With a penchant for connecting people and a creative streak, she graduated from Harvard University, Oxford University, and Harvard Business School, and currently resides in Toronto with her husband and two kids, Askel and Annabelle.