When I turned 59, a company I worked for in the 1980s started trying to “buy me out” of the itty bitty pension I accumulated between 1981 and 1984. I explained to the “financial counselor” who kept calling me that I had “done the math” and the value of the pension with my current life expectancy was half again what he was offering me. He kept telling me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. So I offered to go over the numbers with him. “You do know how to calculate the present value of a future annuity, don’t you?”
From his sputtering response, I gathered that he had majored in Art History or some such. He became so flustered that he blurted out one of my favorite dumb questions of all time:
“How long do you expect to live, anyway?”
Answer: “Longer than you if you keep asking people my age that question.”
These days, I keep stressing to young people to put money back now. In 30 years, that $100 could be $1000. If you wait ten years before you put it back, it will be $500 or less, and so on. Because the earlier you invest, the more time your money has to earn dividends on the dividends.
As a musician who’s been playing, singing, and songwriting for ~50 years, I’ve noticed that the same thing applies to music. Over the years, I’ve observed many 16-year-olds who sang exceptionally well for their age. But when they were 26, they still sang exceptionally well for 16-year-olds, because they had been trying to coast on their natural talent for the last ten years. If they had continued to invest in their talent, musicianship, and music business knowledge, they could be way ahead.
The musical stuff I learned when I was 18 is still with me; the stuff I learned when I was 58, not so much. But what I also realize is that many, many things I didn’t think were that helpful or important at the time have “earned dividends,” in the sense that they made it easier to learn other things later.
And sometimes they “cross-fertilize” with other things. Music theory classes that I thought were terminally boring when I was 17 helped me learn to play sax extemporaneously when I was in my twenties and inform every chord selection and arrangement I do today. Learning banjo when I was 17 helped me invent unique picking patterns on guitar that I use to this day. Blowing through a series of local bands and acoustic trios in my twenties taught me a lot about arranging and presenting live music. And so on.
The point is, if you are a young person who is as serious about your music as you claim, invest in yourself now, while you are in your peak learning age and while you have years ahead of you for your present investment to grow. Take it from someone who has helped several retirees start playing their first instrument, 100 hours of practice or lessons when you’re 18 will be worth 1000 hours of practice or lessons when you’re 48 (no offense to you 48-year-old youngsters).
Voice lessons, guitar lessons, maybe even piano lessons. Music theory classes. Music business classes. Maybe you are a 26-year old who sings or plays exceptionally well for a 26-year old. It’s not enough; in five years you need to sing or play exceptionally well for a 31-year old just to keep up – you need to keep going, to keep growing.
Many, many guitarists I know buy a new guitar whenever they feel like they’re getting stale. And maybe that new sound does inspire them to learn or write some new material for a time. But if you really want to stretch, try taking up something truly different, like banjo, hammered dulcimer, or violin. You’ll feel like an idiot for the first several months. But the neural pathways you build by getting out of your “comfort zone” this way will help your guitar playing in the long run. And your songwriting, and your creativity in general. That’s not to say to neglect your “core instrument” in pursuit of another. Keep practicing that as well, and give up something else if you need to, like funny Internet cat videos.
I am still learning new things on banjo and guitar. But literally every “new” thing I try that works out is built on musical foundations I laid between the ages of 12 and 25. I can’t help thinking sometimes how much better I would be at everything if I had worked harder and learned more when my brain and my fingers were still nimble and my voice could still be trained without herculean effort.
If you work somewhere that offers a 401k plan, you’re probably tired of being told to maximize your investment now, while it will really make a difference. The same thing is true of your music. Clear your schedule of whatever does not affect income, worthwhile personal relationships, spiritual growth, or personal hygiene. Lose Netflix, lose the Sports Channel, lose the video games, lose whatever is wasting time that could be far more profitably spent investing in your music.
I know, when you’re seventeen, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever be twenty-seven, or – worse yet – thirty-seven. It’s also easy to imagine you’ll always be as fast a learner as you are right now. But you won’t. The stuff you learn now, really learn, will still be with you fifty years from now. The stuff you learn in your thirties will only stick with you if you continually practice it.
Invest early and invest often in your music now while it counts. Me, I’m still investing, although my investments won’t have nearly as much time to grow now as they once would have.
Back to the flustered financial planner’s stupid question, “How long do you expect to live, anyway?” The answer is, I don’t know, but every day I invest for the future – I just wish I understood that principle fifty years ago.