Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hedge Funds, Securities and My Ukulele

Ukulele virtuoso Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, on stage.

By Stephen Lewis

Here I sit, in my dorm at Georgetown University, not studying my finance texts, but instead, strumming my ukulele. I am staring at two graphics on my wall thinking that although my path may not be so clear-cut anymore, that’s fine with me.

Of course grades are important, and I do study plenty. I set high personal standards, but sometime last year, it hit me. Chasing a prestigious degree and a corner office were practical pursuits, but they weren’t things that would fire up my passion. Yet, I didn’t know anything else. So if not this pursuit, then what?

A close friend of mine once told me that she thought I had a ‘God complex’ in high school. She was right. At the time, I held a cut-throat mentality towards schoolwork and always kept the future strictly clear and in focus: I’d attend the best college possible, and then I’d land a cushy job on Wall Street. I didn’t have time for non-practical matters; I regarded artistic pursuits -- say, ceramics or jazz band – to be inferior or only time-permissible.

Once in college, everything changed. Freshmen year was not the work hard, play hard experience that I had anticipated it would be. Rather, days grew sterile. Waking up in the morning became a chore, because it meant more textbook chapters and term papers, even in classes I had once anticipated with pleasure. When I wasn’t sleeping or working, I was thinking about the tasks ahead. Suddenly I felt lost and couldn’t figure out why I had come to college, and where I had made a wrong turn.

Looking through some old photos one day, I found a shot of me laughing with two friends from high school, Maxx and Lee. Maxx hadn’t gone to a typical college. Rather, he was on his way to becoming one of the most successful talents in graphic design in the country. Lee is holding a little ukulele in the picture, and he has one of the best ears for music that I know, playing at least three instruments. Bells started ringing in my mind.

Most of my classes that spring semester happened to include texts from Immanuel Kant, several of which explored the danger of projecting a means to an end as the end itself. I had already fallen into that trap. I thought more about my high school friends. Mike plays soccer at Brown, Angad writes a column for the Daily Trojan at USC, Nick is programming video games at Penn, Jeff plays the flute at McGill, and Kayla has done so well on stage at Emerson that she has earned an understudy position for a Broadway show.

I found myself envying my artist friends. They wake up every morning excited to share their creative expressions with the world. While I knew the reality might not be as quite the romantic scene I envisioned, I began to recognize extraordinary value in their efforts, and slowly it dawned on me: art might help alleviate my stress.

That’s when I stumbled upon music. Music? At Georgetown? Most students here are aspiring politicians or diplomats. The number of visual and performing arts majors (and the portion of the University budget devoted to those pursuits) are minimal. Only a year ago, that wouldn’t have bothered me. Since then, though, I have become something of a musician.

Or at least, I play the ukulele – an instrument I bought for a song one day while browsing Amazon. Now, I play cover pieces by Zach Condon and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. But I didn’t stop there. I have recently latched onto electronic dance music (when people hear it they sometimes call it “techno music,” or, “eurotrash.”) I’m now starting to learn to use live-mixing music software.

But what can a student in business do, practically speaking, with all of this music? Lots of things. Several friends and I are already engaged in building a social networking website for college bands and musicians. Moreover, coming from southern California, where the entertainment industry thrives in my backyard, I now see that my analytical skills as a finance major might one day land me a job in the music industry. While I may not possess the natural born talents of musicians, actors, impressionists or sculptors, there are still ways I might make a living in the world of the arts.

And the real point of all this is that I’m happy. Every free moment I get, I have those nylon strings beneath my fingertips and I’m strumming the work of my oversized ukulele hero, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

Stephen Lewis is a sophomore at Georgetown University, where he is majoring in business. This is his first published writing.

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