The research is overwhelming that playing an instrument is good for the brain. It also helps your career. Here’s how a lifelong pursuit of music has made me a better analyst.
1. Get over “the dip.” Like with many pursuits, there are points when you must sound worse to get better. This is a concept of “The Dip.” Sure, it’s a lot easier and more fun to gloss over music. But to gain mastery you need to allow yourself to sound bad and make mistakes. Otherwise, you will be stuck as a beginner and never break through as a polished musician.As an analyst, there is an easy way to solve problems. They may work okay, but they won’t develop your toolbox. You have to keep pushing your skill set — otherwise, you will be a permanent beginner.
2. Chunk your activities. Music taught me to “chunk” my learning. Instead of playing the piece of music straight through each time, a better practice habit is to break the piece down into passages. Discover patterns in those passage. Pick up at different spots in the music each time you practice.These are also good practices as an analyst. You want to break down complex business problems into variables and assumptions. Your model should be clear in its inputs, calculations, and outputs. Breezing through a model in one swoop is about as helpful as practicing a piece straight through. It may feel great, but it is not the way to grow.
3. You are your worst critic. I still remember my first violin recital. My parents said I did so well, and I thought I did horribly. “Didn’t you hear all my mistakes?” I said. “What mistakes?” I thought they were just being nice because I was the youngest person at the recital.Fast forward to my senior recital in college and we were having the same conversation.Many times we focus on our faults that go unnoticed by others. It’s important to not let these prevent us from sharing our work in the first place.If I get nervous during presentations, I remember those recitals and how nobody heard my alleged “mistakes.”
4. Draw from many sources. My guitar teacher had a great way to start students: listening assignments. He gave me a list of all sorts of guitarists to check out, from Andres Segovia to Jimi Hendrix. My assignment was to write down which guitarists I liked and why. It was fascinating to see how rock guitarists could repurpose techniques from classical guitarists and vice versa.People tend to silo their knowledge. “How can a history book help me with statistics?” Music teaches you how to apply knowledge to many new sources. For example, most people would not see a musical education as preparation for data analysis.
5. Reinvent. Music seems to embrace reinvention more than other crafts, People feel typecast very early in their career and are afraid to try something new. You’re in IT. How could you possibly get into merchandising?Compare this to music, where many of the best musicians can go through wildly different phases — and are celebrated for it.As an analyst, I’m always trying new things, building new models, and taking on new projects. This does not show lack of focus but rather pursuit of my craft.
6. Share your art (even when you don’t feel ready.). Possibly the hardest part of making art is sharing it. I remember fighting with my violin teacher about giving a recital. “But I’m not ready!” I insisted.But to cite that old line: “You will never be ready.” It’s more important to ship than to “feel ready.” A year ago, I would have been horrified at posting my thoughts online. Now I remind myself that the best art is shared.
7. You are not your chair. Ah, the chair challenge — an assignment of “chairs” in the orchestra based on merit. (A higher-ranked chair is better.). I spent most of high school in second chair, with brief spurts as first chair. I was devastated each time when losing my first chair.But what actually changed? Just my chair. I was the same musician regardless of the chair. I let my chair define my musicianship.
What an important lesson in life where people judge themselves by job title. Regardless of your title, be the same professional.
8. The masters are people, too. One musician’s rite of passage is the master class, where you perform music for a famous musician to evaluate in person. To top that, it is all done in public.During one master class, I stumbled over a certain passage. Looking up at the master, I expected to see scorn. Instead, he encouraged me to keep playing, like nothing ever happened.During his remarks, I expected the master to jump to a scathing critique of that passage. Instead, he said, “I’ve had trouble with that passage myself!”
Master classes taught me that the masters are people, too. Their instruments don’t play themselves. They have struggled with the same passages of music.
Whether I am interacting with other analysts, executives, or industry leaders, master classes remind me that we all have to work hard for our craft.
Music in school was excellent preparation for my career as an analyst, so it is unfortunate to see school music programs disappear. Encourage your students to get involved where they can.
You may get the old retort: “Music? When will I ever use that?”
As I have tried to show, they’ll use it in more ways then they can understand.
Photo courtesy Gratisography