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Dear Miss V: About Your College Scholarship. . . .

Gary North
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April 21, 2011

Dear Miss V:

Your home school education has worked well. At age 16, you have beaten the system. You jumped through all of the mandatory academic hoops without ever having walked into a tax-funded school classroom. You have not received a standard textbook education. You are ahead of your chronological peers.

You will soon be off to college. I understand that you have done well on several CLEP exams, so you will be entering with some college credit. You have also won a full-tuition scholarship in piano performance, so your parents will not have to fund the bulk of the costs. This is good. But it is not entirely good. There are no free lunches in life.

The scholarship is a major temptation: a private education funded by your own talent and hard work. But college will cost you more than money. It will cost you time: at least four years.

Usually, a 16-year-old's time is cheap. High-paying jobs are not plentiful these days even for college graduates. This means that the opportunity cost of going to college is usually quite low. Such is not the case with you.

You are a gifted pianist. You have a strong work ethic. But you are an even more gifted painter. There are a lot of very fine classical piano performers out there. There are not many gifted painters.

What if you devoted the next four years, including summers, to improving your skills with the paint brush? At 8 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, the total is 8,000 hours. In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, we learn that 10,000 hours of intense work usually are required to become a virtuoso. This investment of time does not guarantee such status, but it is necessary, though not sufficient.

If you devoted this amount of time, plus three hours a day plus Saturdays to more CLEP exams and upper division distance learning, you will be able to earn a B.A. degree in four years, including summers. You can do this for about $15,000. That is a rigorous schedule, but it can be done. It is what virtuosos do. If you can find a mentor who paints well, that would be ideal. You can finish college with distance learning in four years, even when serving as an apprentice.

Of course, you could not practice your piano, which you are devoted to. So, what about six hours painting and two hours with piano? That would cut your painting time to 6,000 hours. That still puts you ahead of your peers.

You could probably make a living today by selling your paintings, though not a good living. In four years, if you put in 6-hour days, you should be able to make a middle-class living. You will have that option for the rest of your life. Just keep at it, improving your painting skills. Spending an hour a day on marketing would be wise. Get a Website up and running.

The odds against your becoming a successful piano concert performer are enormous. That career would also require travel. Painting can be done at home.

I realize that there are a lot of young Chinese painters who sell their paintings for very little money. But you could become a regional painter. That would give you an edge.

Your likelihood of making an unique impact with your painting is good. The likelihood of doing the same with classical piano is unlikely. It's a question of supply and demand.

I come to the issue of job and calling. What is a calling? It is the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. That clearly is painting at this stage in your career.

Can you make piano playing your job? Unlikely. What about teaching at a low wage in a private high school? Maybe. Teaching ungifted students, decade after decade, yes. But you should be able to make a lot more with your paintings.

I knew a graduate of Julliard forty years ago. He drove a cab for a living. Today, he helps rich people put together high-end home music systems. Yet he was a gifted performer. His calling did not become his job.

It is always difficult to identify your calling. You are in a unique position: you may be able to make this choice at age 16. I was 18 when I did this, and I was young. It is not that classical piano is anything to dismiss lightly. But, compared to your potential in painting, I think you should consider mastery there as a greater opportunity.

I'll tell you what. You can sell me a painting for $500 or a CD for $17. I'd rather have the painting.

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