Music or MBA?

Inspired by the ending of Mike Fraietta’s post to „Be yourself, everybody“, I’ve questioned myself about what that could mean for me in my own personal circumstances.

As it turns out I’ve always had a tough time introducing and explaining myself what my professional background is when I’m in certain circles.


By definition I’d probably be a typical entrepreneur – for example when I was 4 years old, I took the stems of dandelion flowers, opened them, put them in water and tried to sell the beautiful creatures that came out of the experiment to my neighbours.

6  years old, I had changed my ‘business’ to home-made lemonade and still got smiles from people passing by our property on which I had initially set up my temporary stall. Before my mum realized it, I had moved my little income producing lemonade stand up the road and next to the public swimming pool where I could have made a fortune… if she just wouldn’t have found out too soon and hadn’t been so worried about tax consequences and certain child labor concerns(?)

The reality is that with my father being a full time entrepreneur and all the entrepreneurial spirit around me, it would have been great to do an MBA to make the most of my business interests and channeling them into the best possible chances for entrepreneurial success, or so I thought for a long time anyway.

However, things turned out differently for me after starting to play the piano at the age of 9. Shortly after meeting with one of the worlds top pianists who recognized a certain talent in me (that I did not), I was lucky to be trained together with other gifted musicians and had the privilege of having really awesome teachers.

The result of this following 10 year journey was that my entrepreneurial energy was now channeled into the creative arts instead which I wanted to pursue as much as opening my own company (which eventually I did both while completing my degree in music at university).

While this all sounds pleasing, it left me confused! Am I a musician or am I a businessman? 

What didn’t help was that the business that I opened during my music studies had absolutely nothing to do with music. In fact it was a light bulb producing company that made lamps as close to natural daylight as possible ( I sold it into several rooms of the university where a good reading environment (and you need a good light to read) is appreciated, but that was about all the relationship I could make out between business and music at the time.

It remained like that for while, so when I met a business person, I tried to keep the conversation related around business topics and introduced myself as an entrepreneur. If somebody asked me what I studied and it was music, I felt awkward, at least for a few years.

On the other hand, when I played a concert and I conversed with people after the concert about where I studied, what I do now and so on, they often felt I’m joking with them when I said that I run a company that has nothing to do with music at all. Their logical consequence would be „of course, as a musician it is really hard to make money, so you had no other choice.“

Music and business is a dream combination

But the reality is different. While I felt that music and business is difficult to be mixed in the past, I now feel very confident about this combination. In fact, late last year I met with David Houle, a well known futurist and best selling author from the US who briefly mentioned to me that he believes the leading CEOs of the future should ideally have an arts degree, one way or the other – and simply for the fact that for the type of problems they’ll have to deal with in their professional lives it requires a creative and problem solving mind, an out of the box thinking model and quite possibly a just differently wired brain.

My professor at university said to me on several occasions – you’re one of the few students I am not worried about. I always wondered how he meant that. Many students were much more disciplined with their practise and got more and better concerts. Their chances to succeed in the music business were significantly higher. But, they also saw music as their only passion.

Only today I understand why he was so confident at the time and even though my business wasn’t looking like it was taking off any time soon and only distracted me from practising piano. But he knew that I was not only willing but keenly interested to look beyond the natural boundaries of what I was studying and venturing into a different world that I would eventually make my own and that with time, I would be able to integrate this into my professional background as well.

Music attracts people from all walks of life and forms relationships on all levels

One experience that I’d like to share is that a musical gift will always be appreciated by people of completely different backgrounds: whether they are lawyers, doctors, bankers, accountants or others. This becomes particularly obvious when you arrive in a new country or immigrate somewhere. Everybody knows that one can not fully develop a new network of trust overnight, but that at the same time one needs the appropriate contacts to be able to settle successfully.

Where business people often must prove themselves or ideally should come recommended, a pianist for instance can just sit down in front of a piano and start playing, practically anywhere in the world, and thereby attract people from all walks of life and in all capacities in one central place. Thus a musician is only a concert of new friends, help and support away.

From income worries to better business decisions

The concern that many have in that it may be difficult to earn enough income as an artist, is more or less valid, but in my personal view it is justified. On the other side, if especially first time entrepreneurs have no creative problem solving skills and a certain feeling of safety, then their decision making can all too easily be based on fears and financial worries, rather than being focused on the best possible outcome. Surprisingly I learnt, that in my case my musical background indeed gives me the ability to make better business decisions.

From my personal perspective, I could not do what I’m doing today without my music studies. Sure, an MBA or a tech degree would have been very helpful at times and certainly shortened my learning curve in the business I am doing now. But the time that I have spent in study, in youth and childhood at the piano and the songs that I learned in that time have somehow wired my brain differently. It is exactly this kind of wiring that I discover I need now in order to solve the highly complex integration challenges we’re facing at my startup

I encourage every artist to learn about business and business people and entrepreneurs to study some of the creative arts. Only good can come out of it.

BTW: Just now I uploaded some of my old recordings on Soundcloud

7 thoughts on “Music or MBA?

  1. Pingback: 10 Questions With Toby Ruckert | NZ Entrepreneur Magazine

  2. Awesome article Toby.I personally enjoyed reading it and totally inspired me.I’m in my final year of graduation in political science and I’m very interested in studying business.I play guitar and sing in a band.I’m learning to play piano.BTW I think “unified inbox” is a great way to improve inter-connectedness across the globe.Your songs on soundcloud is amazing and very soothing.All the best..cheers!

    • Thanks Purnett – I hope you enjoy making music and pursue the piano learning as well :) Hard in the beginning, but getting easier with time like most things. If you can think of good ideas how to combine music, business and politics, let me know!

  3. Great article Toby. I’ve met more than a few HR Managers in large companies that really want more musicians, dancers, artists etc in their graduate intakes. Their point is that having discipline in a creative field gives people a different perspective to problem definition, problem resolution, and team relationships and communication. One IT Manager told me that anyone who could compose, write, and conduct an orchestral score would have no issues understanding and managing dependencies in complex IT projects. The ability to create, review, and store complex ideas in your head and then turn them into something tangible is a highly valuable skill.

  4. Great summary Brad, there should be a new word for it with a definition in the dictionary. I just started the blog a few months ago for the purpose of exploring my creativity in writing, too. I feel each of the creative arts intersects differently with my aspirations as an entrepreneur and gives the journey more and deeper colors. Next on the list is painting :)

  5. I’ve always felt art and entrepreneurship intersected at a magnificent place. Both are acts of extreme personal creation. And – when one can spend time on each (my version is writing), it’s magical.

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