I've often been asked how (and why) I made the transition into music and theatre from working in finance. Well, the story comes in three parts:
Music has been central in my life since I was young. I performed in international festivals, soloed with orchestras, and - because I had quite the competitive spirit - competed in national piano competitions. But the piano was also my place of refuge when, for instance, I was bullied in middle school and didn't know how else to deal with my feelings. When time came to apply to colleges, I nearly chose the conservatory path towards becoming a concert pianist, but had the opportunity to go to Yale where I could study with a renowned pianist (whom I'd admired since I was 6) as well as pursue a well-rounded liberal arts education.
In my sophomore year, I almost stopped practicing the piano entirely. Despite music being a core element of my happiness, I craved to be more: an entrepreneur, a storyteller, and an enabler. A fellowship through the Yale Women's Center allowed me the opportunity to start community workshops called "Empowering Young Women" for inner-city high school women of color. Given my interests in the intersection of business and journalism, I joined the Yale Entrepreneurial Society and co-founded The Yale Entrepreneur, a magazine that focused on corporate social responsibility (and which eventually became the largest student-run business publication on campus). I enjoyed short stints as a reporter for the Yale Daily News and Yale-TV, but discovered that while they provided a platform for my voice to be heard, I did not enjoy being a journalist.
Passing on a "Million-dollar Career"
Then I learned of a place called “Wall Street.” Not the Wall Street you see in movies or the news, but the Wall Street presented to me by young people and alumni around my age, only extremely well-dressed. They warned me Satan would be attractive and I was intrigued. Having grown up in a laid-back town in the Pacific Northwest, I was fascinated by these people’s intensity. They said they only made room for the best and brightest. They promised big futures and big shoes to fill.
An internship at a prestigious, white-shoe firm came calling and I took it. Working my butt off during the summer, I rose toward the top of my class and gained recognition from the firm. At the end of my summer internship, a Managing Director congratulated me by welcoming me to the start of a “Million-dollar career.”
The truth was, like most things in life, it was a fun summer fling but a nightmare full-time. The glitz and glamour melted into 16-hour soul-crushing days (think 9-to-5, plus the other 9-to-5).
Still, I couldn’t leave immediately.
I stayed for my parents. My parents are immigrants struggling to live the American dream in true fashion. I’d grown up listening to stories of them fleeing North Korea and losing everything and living off tree bark when there wasn’t enough grass to eat. So it was a bit difficult to complain. Staying allowed me to give back to my parents who worked long hours in menial and manual jobs and to my sister who struggled to put herself through college.
But it wasn't an easy life to keep up. Every day, a piece of my true self faded. Writing short songs during my commutes kept the creative fire alive but not from slowly dimming. On one fateful afternoon, I decided I needed to "get out" and see what the world was doing. I got up from my desk and just walked out. I wandered toward Washington Square Park since that was the most "opposite" thing from the corporate world I could think of in NYC and found myself drawn to an obnoxiously gigantic purple flag that waved "NYU".
Curious and a bit aimless, I walked in. The elevator rose. Doors opened and a sign revealed itself that read "Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program." Those words were like Greek to me – I understood all the characters but couldn't make sense of them in that order. How could there be a graduate program for musical theater writing?
In the administrative office, I asked a young man who looked way too busy for his own well-being if I could get some information on this "program" and he said, "We actually have our open house tonight if you want to come." Oh, Fate, you are good.
That day changed my life. Being in a room full of passionate souls who wanted to tell stories through music - I realized that there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do. It dawned on me that I hadn't allowed my voice to live. I applied, so wanting to be a part of this vibrant community but thinking getting in was a total shot in the dark. They not only accepted me, they offered me a near full scholarship. I took this as a sign that I could, in fact, heed a different, more soulful, siren call.
Out of the trappings of the pursuit of wealth, I dug deep and found my own reserve of enrichment. It was a reckless fight, but now I'm living my story.
I write songs I want to sing. I tell stories I want to tell. I fall. I rise.
I am Janet Noh.