We had the good fortune of connecting with George Ko and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi George, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
I’ve finally realized that my natural personality, inclinations, thought process, and how I see and view the world is simply of an artistic person. I don’t always follow logic, I love chasing after dreams, and I’m hungry to do things differently. More importantly, I realized that the medium for me to deliver my artistic compulsions is most easily realized through the piano. However, there are real financial and logistical hurdles you have to acknowledge when you have an artistic career. I’m still doing things on the side to make ends meet. However, pursuing my music was the best and most comfortable decision I had ever made for myself.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I think throughout life we’re always asking ourselves, “What is my purpose?” If we remove religion, responsibilities, the concept of destiny, and societal norms, it’s still hard to discover what is really our purpose. The answer is not always clear: it’s like looking through a foggy lens. Every moment we think we know “the answer”, life throws an egg at our head. We end up getting desperate for solutions, so much so that we’re willing to subject ourselves to anything— even spending money.
Ever since I was 5 years old I thought I knew my purpose: build a company. My dad was an entrepreneur and when I could finally sign my name, he would take my brother and me on business trips. In a way, he apprenticed us on the craft of entrepreneurship. My dad was Daniel Plainview, and I was H.W. (There Will Be Blood reference).
Even in college, during my freshman year at Harvard, I thought I was destined to be a startup wunderkind. I sabotaged my grades to start a venture. It came, it launched and got conquered. I lost everything: all my money, my reputation, my credibility, and worst of all, my friendships. I remember just feeling like an absolute Eeyore while my classmates were competing in the Olympics, curing cancer, or raising a Series A with Sequoia Capital.
For some reason, my butt decided to get up and it moved my body to a concert on campus. The Boston Philharmonic was performing Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and I sat in the fifth row.
My skin suddenly felt cold, then fiery hot, like jumping in a cold bath and then a deep plunge into a Japanese hot spring. My pupils dilated like I just ingested LSD. My hair popped up like a meerkat in the Serengeti. It was in that moment I knew I wanted to be a musician. The ability to craft an emotional experience existing purely in the present fascinated me. I went to the Dean’s office and switched my major from Applied Math to Music.
You would think a few years later I’d be some sort of performing artist touring the world.
Well, I got sidetracked.
In the midst of that psychedelic passion, the gargantuan number of hours spent practicing, and those mindless all-nighters, I lost sight of what I was doing, and why I was doing it. No matter how many hours I contributed to Gladwell’s 10,000, I could never rival those artists at the mountaintop. Success as a performer was out of reach. Climbing Everest at 18,000 ft. felt the same at 1000 ft.
I started panicking. And what happens when we panic? We run and hide. We run away from our dreams, our fears, and our roadblocks. We go back to what we are used to. So, I went back to business.
During that period, I launched two companies with two incredible people: Giant Robot Media with original founder Eric Nakamura, and Coral Robots with my brother, Ted Ko. However, both businesses fell on the knife-edge. And so I returned to the same place I was that sophomore year in college. I worked, I launched, and got conquered, again.
So I asked myself, “What is my purpose?”
I didn’t come to a great epiphanic resolution. All I knew was this: I enjoyed playing the piano. It makes me happy. And I made people happy playing my music.
I also knew the road to becoming a full-time musician was going to be hard. Money will be tough to come by, and in the meantime I have to work at other jobs to maintain the day-to-day. But one thing was for certain: if we really only have one life, and we only have a set number of years, why not try doing the thing that makes us excited?
So that was that. I once again tossed aside my past, my successes, my failures, my personal brand as a tech entrepreneur, and emerged as a guy who plays the piano.
My style also changed dramatically. I used to play solely classical music, but now I found joy in just playing music truly that speaks to myself. My style is a hodgepodge of everything I love: classical, jazz, R&B, cinema, anime, pop, and more. My influences range from Chopin to Ahmad Jamal, Hiromi Uehara, John Mayer, TOKiMONSTA and Joe Hisaishi.
In terms of what I play, it’s the piano. The piano is an amazing instrument. It’s the singer, bass, drums, violin, cello.. you name it. It’s the whole orchestra, band and combo. It’s the easiest way to express myself without needing to compromise on anything. My music walks the line between a singer/songwriter and instrumentalist. I just mostly let the piano do the singing.
So what is my purpose? Well, I still don’t really know. All I know is life is really hard. It’s not fair, it’s filled with ups and downs, and nothing really goes according to plan. The only thing we can control and manage is what we want to do and how we do it. After that, it’s all up to entropy.
So instead of finding your purpose, go find what makes you happy. Try it out for a little bit.
If you panic, it’s ok.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
LA is my city. It’s my home, my neighborhood, and my life. So first off, I would say, “Welcome to my home.”
We’d start off the day at Griffith Park in the AM before it gets to hot. Hike around the park and end up at the observatory and look over the city view. Then, we’d head to breakfast at The Pantry, and walk around the Grand Central Market, The Bradbury Building, and the Arts District to see the old and new LA.
Then we’d head over to the West Side, which is where I truly consider home. We’d hit up the trendy spots in Abbot Kinney, Century City Mall, and all those other instagtrammable places, but then we’d up at the Apple Pan and get a classical California burger. We’d then stroll onto Sawtelle and check out the GR2 Art Gallery, where most of my 20s were spent, and head over to Santa Monica and walk around the peer. When it’s nighttime, we’d get Oaxacan food at Guelaguetza, and end the evening over at K-town, where we’d drink to a point where soondubu makes sense to be consumed.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to give a shout out to all the mentors who have guided me in my career, teachers that have taught me everything at the piano, Dan the Automator for giving me the opportunity to write music for the big screen, Eric Nakamura for giving me a chance to make mistakes and work on dream projects, Cosmo Buono and Barry Alexander for being the first people who believed in me, and many friends and family.
Photos by Anna Webber (http://www.annawebber.com/). Under the Peach Tree album art by Maggie Chiang.