Former hotel lounge pianist turned pharmaceutical digital marketer Rei Lim discusses why he chose to leave his life as a professional musician behind to instead pursue a corporate career. In this episode of Career Relaunch®, we’ll talk about the importance of role models, feeling good about your future, and being proud of the work you do. In the Mental Fuel® segment, I’ll address a listener question about how to prioritize your interests and head down the right path for you in your career.

Key Career Insights

  1. If you can’t find any role models in your industry you aspire to become like, that could be a signal that you may want to reconsider your career path.
  2. If you’re not proud of your response to “What do you do?”, that could suggest you may be doing work you don’t find truly meaningful.
  3. Make sure you feel inspired by the target role you’re trying to land

Tweetables to Share


Resources & Quotes Mentioned

  • “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” -Stephen Covey

Listener Challenge

During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I addressed a listener question about how to think through the various interests and priorities in your career. My challenge to you was to consider what matters most to you in the next chapter of your career. To help clarify this, download my “Defining Your Professional Priorities” Worksheet.

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About Rei Lim

Rei Lim Career RelaunchRei Lim started off as a professional musician. At first, he felt like the luckiest guy, making a living out of his passion. But 4 years into the job, he woke up one day and realized he needed to pick up another skill because being a musician was not viable for him in the long run. He ended up picking up digital marketing and fell in love with it. After freelancing for four years, he now works as a digital marketer for a global pharmaceutical company. On the side, he also runs an online magazine about beauty aesthetics called Fairy Marraine.

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Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): Sometimes when you meet people, and they ask you what you do, and then you are in between jobs, that is one of the toughest question that you can get. You actually feel awkward. I think what’s worse at that point was that I was still in a job, but when people ask me what do I do, I didn’t feel proud of what I did.

Joseph: Good evening, Rei. Welcome to Career Relaunch.

Rei: Good evening, Joseph. How are you?

Joseph: Very well. I’m very excited to hear all about your unique career path – first working as a professional musician and then eventually shifting to working in digital marketing in the corporate world, which is quite the transition.

I was wondering if you could just kick us off by telling us what you’re focused on right now in your career and your life.

Rei: Thank you, Joseph. It is my pleasure to be here. I’d like to share about two things that is going on in my life right now. Number one is actually my full-time job in an MNC. I’m currently working in a pharmaceutical company. It is a regional role, but I take care of the entire marketing production for Asia. I’m actually handling nine countries. Right now, I have to fly pretty frequently to take care of the marketing. That’s my full-time job.

The other thing that I’m doing is actually a little startup that I started last year. It is an online magazine called Fairy Marraine. This is a beauty, aesthetic photo, where we provide a lot of information about beauty and aesthetics and health and wellness. That is a startup that I hope to build in the next one year.

Joseph: All right. I want to talk about both of those as we go along here. It’s very interesting that you’ve got this work you’re doing as a digital marketer for the pharmaceutical company in there, but it’s also interesting that you’ve got this beauty startup on the side. Let’s talk about both as we go through the conversation.

What I’d love to do first, Rei, is go back in time a little bit, because I know you haven’t always been a digital marketer in the pharmaceutical industry. We actually first crossed paths when you sent me a message on Facebook in 2016, after watching my TEDx Talk. I don’t know if you remember at the time, but you were about four years into being a hotel lounge pianist.

I was wondering if you could start us off by telling us a little bit about that chapter of your career when you were a professional pianist, and then we can eventually talk about your current work.

Rei: Being a professional pianist is a very special, important chapter in my life, because that was what I started life as – as a professional musician. When I first started, I was the resident pianist in a very prestigious hotel. I was playing from Monday to Saturday nights. In the day, I was teaching, and playing at other venues in the afternoon.

I was about 23 years old at that time. I was earning very decently, and I was quite in-demand. I thought that I was one of the lucky guys who was making a good living out of his passion. But three years into this job, I began to feel very mundane. I began to feel bored, and I suddenly questioned myself, ‘Why am I starting to drag my foot to work every evening?’ I find myself having the tendency to turn up late and starting every set late.

I knew something was wrong. I actually saw a counsellor, and I analyzed two things. Number one, I was doing the same things day in, day out. Even if I was playing different repertoires, it is doing the same thing. I had no direction. I could not find someone. I could not find a senior musician who will stand 20 years ahead of me who inspires me.

I just wanted to be realistic, not just at that moment but also 10, 20 years later. I realized that I had no role model that I could look up to that could inspire me. I think a role model is very important, because people can really inspire you.

One of the things was really that I stopped feeling grateful. I began to feel that if I really carry on like that in this job, I would be in peril.

I began to realize that, as I grew older, I wanted career milestones, such as career progression. I wanted more stability. As a working musician, you can play in the most prestigious venue, but you will always face things like late payment. Because we are hired as freelancers, so we are not protected by employment laws. Sometimes, as freelancers, you end up working for free.

Joseph: Before we get to your transition out of your work as a musician, you’re actually the first professional musician I’ve had on the show, so I was wondering if you could set the stage for us here of your life before you came to this point of realizing that this was wasn’t what you wanted to do. Can you just explain a little bit more about the hotel you’re at and the clientele there? What exactly did you do as a hotel lounge pianist?

Rei: It is a very prestigious hotel in this part of the world. It’s called the Raffles Hotel. What was happening in a typical day was I will wake up maybe about 11:00 a.m. If I was playing in another venue, I would start at about 3:00 p.m. until 5:00, and then I’ll reach the hotel at 6:30, and I will play all the way until 9:30.

Joseph: What sort songs were you playing?

Rei: I was trying to play everything, but I was only good in pop and jazz. I was trying to play some classical, because Raffles Hotel is a very old hotel. The kind of clientele who comes in, we do get celebrities. We get people from all over the world, especially from Europe. We had a lot of regular guests who are familiar faces. It is a place where you can see familiar faces all the time. The guests feel at home, and we feel at home when we see them as well.

Joseph: Something I have always wondered about—I can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure of staying at hotels that are fancy enough to have a hotel lounge pianist every time, but when I have seen people like that, I’ve always wondered, are you reading from notes or are you just playing everything from memory? How do you come up with your playlist?

Rei: Basically, it is really a very easy job, because the hotel doesn’t restrict me on my repertoire, as long as it sounds good, as long as I get good feedback from the clientele every now and then. Basically, I just play whatever I like. I can read notes, but I prefer to memorize them, and I play by ear most of the time.

Joseph: That is quite the skill. Did you expect that your training as a pianist would take you to eventually become a pianist in a hotel lobby?

Rei: Yes. I was expecting that when I was in my training, because I had a teacher whom I respected. He was a role model when I was 16, 17 years old. The thing that they say about the law of attraction thing, I think somehow it brought me there years later.

Joseph: I want to go back to something that you were starting to tell us which is what made you want to make a change. I know when we spoke before, you mentioned there were a couple of reasons why you started to think about walking away from music. One was thinking about your future as a musician, which I know you touched on before. Can you just tell us a little bit more about how you thought about your future prospects as a musician and how you realized that that wasn’t quite what you wanted?

Rei: I think the best way to look at the future of your career is to see if there is somebody who is 10, 20 years down the road who is like your future. Whether that future is the kind of future that you are looking for and whether this person who is 10, 20 years down the road, whether you can see yourself becoming this person.

I practically know most of the working musicians over here in Singapore and as well in the Southeast Asian region. I know the best players, and even if I become the best, I wouldn’t like what I will be doing because of the kind of lifestyle. You have to stay up late. You have to drink alcohol. You have to, what we call, ‘entertain the guests.’ You are in a drinking and a smoking environment, which is something that I was growing out of.

I went through a stage of drinking and stuff like that, but I was growing out of it, because my social circle changed. I was mixing with people who are in the corporate industry, who were very stable. I see their progress, and it was really meaningful. Not just people in corporate, but I was also mixing with a lot of entrepreneurs at that time.

Joseph: Is there any sort of misperception, you think, that people have or that you had about the life of a musician that very quickly became apparent to you that that’s not what quite what you wanted?

Rei: Sometimes when you meet people, and they ask you what you do, I came to a point where it felt awkward to me to say I play the piano at a hotel lounge. Let’s say you are in a networking fashion, it’s just irrelevant to them. You can see that they immediately just lose interest in you.

I think I came across one of your talks. You were saying something like, ‘Sometimes when you are in between jobs or when you are quitting a job, or you just quit your job, that is one of the toughest question that you can get.’ You actually feel awkward.

I think what’s worse in that point was that I was still in a job, but when people ask me what do I do, I didn’t feel proud of what I did.

Joseph: When we spoke before, you also mentioned some life considerations related to milestones, which I know you eluded to before. How did you think being a pianist would fit into the milestones that you wanted to cross in your life?

Rei: One of the milestones that I define is actually progression. Let’s say I’m three years in this job. Am I doing the same things as I was doing three years ago? If I was doing the same thing, then why am I stagnant? We have to go somewhere else after some time.

I found that after three years plus in that job, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I just can’t see myself going anywhere in that vocation.

Joseph: You had also mentioned to me when we spoke before about the importance of age and how, as you get older as a musician, that can sometimes affect your prospects. Can you just explain what you meant by that?

Rei: It is very important, because as a performing and working musician, you are an entertainer. As an entertainer, there are other things that are important. It holds a stick when people assess whether they want to hire you or not.

One of the very important things apart from your musical skills is actually your image. As you get older and people have been seeing you around, sometimes, when you get a new management come in, they want new things. They want younger people. They want to hear younger songs. Maybe they want a band. They just want fresh graduates from the arts college. So as you get older, people may not want to hire you that enthusiastically.

Joseph: You’re starting to realize that this might not be the future that you want, which I think is when we first connected. What happened next for you? I know that you started to take some proactive steps to enable the next chapter of your career. What did you do?

Rei: I chanced upon a workshop on digital marketing. I went for it. I paid about Sing $4,000. I complete the entire course. I liked it very much.

Once you like it very much, you just find ways and means to improve, so I started freelancing as a digital marketer, helping businesses generate leads via social media and search engine. As I began to be able to make a decent living as a digital marketer, I slowly faded off from the music industry.

Joseph: At what point did you start to think about moving out of freelance into working full-time?

Rei: As a freelancer, you are somehow like a musician as well. You are responsible for making ends meet. The income is not stable. Clients can not pay you. They can default on your payments. Clients can be unreasonable. My purpose of going into freelancing as a digital marketer was actually to pick up experience and see where it takes me.

I started to be on the lookout for jobs, apply for jobs via LinkedIn, which is very powerful. I was lucky enough that I was given a job by this company. In a matter of three phone calls, I got the job. Now, I’m more than a month into the job now.

Joseph: How is it going for you so far there in the digital marketing role in the pharmaceutical industry?

Rei: Over here in the multi-national company is very different from working in a small business, in the SME, because in an MNC, the overall direction and the branding, what you can do, the boundaries, what you cannot do is set by the head office.

Even as a regional marketer, I’m quite on track, because I’m lucky enough to have a boss who actually cares about making sure I get on the job well. I would say I’m very lucky. I think I’m on the right track and doing well.

Joseph: The last thing I want to ask you before we wrap up here, Rei, is about your transition, because it’s interesting. You are moving from a career as a musician to working in the corporate world. For others out there who are thinking about making that sort of a move, is there something that you learned along the way about what it takes to successfully make this sort of a transition?

Rei: If you are from the arts background, you want to go to the corporate world, it is really not easy unless you have qualifications that can get you past the qualifications gatekeeper. If they want to bypass this gatekeeper of qualifications, they have to start taking action to freelance and work for small businesses. Just keep going for interviews. Just keep knocking on doors.

Joseph: That’s a great tip. There are a lot gatekeepers along the way, and I think that when you’re going through a traditional job hunt, those tend to favor traditional candidates. Was there anything about your training as a musician that ended up helping you in some way that was sort of surprising in terms of your training and how it ended up somehow opening up doors for you or paving the way towards your current role?

Rei: No. Not at all.

Joseph: No, not at all. Okay.

Rei: Not at all.

Joseph: All right.

Rei: Really, really, really. It’s not that I’m skeptical, but really not at all. I remember when I first started to hunt for job, what happened was I did have a short snippet about me being a musician, and I didn’t get any response at all. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but the moment I took it out I started getting calls for interviews.

Joseph: Was that hard at all for you to let go of your past identity as a musician, given that it was so much a part of your life, or was that a fairly easy transition for you?

Rei: It was hard, because you would start thinking about what others would think about you. When people stop seeing you performing, sometimes they call you up. Sometimes you bump into them on the streets, and if you share with them what you are trying to do, they become naysayers. They say, ‘You will never be able to make it because of your background.’

On the practical side, it was hard because of the kind of lifestyle, the difference in the lifestyle that you have in corporate as compared to being a musician. As I was saying, being a musician you wake up at least 11:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., because you perform late at night. If you go into the corporate, you have to wake up at 7:30 a.m. in the morning.

It took me a while to switch my body clock, but I was just determined, because I was just weighing – if it’s going to take me one year of discomfort for the next 10 years to be more stable, yes, I think it is a good tradeoff.

Joseph: That gets me into my other question before we wrap up with your current project, which is your side gig. My other question is about the people who go in the reverse direction from you in their career. I guess I hear much more about people who are leaving the corporate world to go off and become a musician or an artist or some sort of to live their dream or whatever.

What would you say to those people out there who are thinking about doing the opposite of what you did, leaving the corporate world to pursue ‘fill in the blank,’ whether it’s music or art or anything else that is one their passions?

Rei: If they really have clarity to what they are doing, if they are of a matured age that they have seen enough of the world, you are responsible for yourself. If you really want to go into there, you do not mind the setbacks, you do not mind the instability, then okay, go ahead.

Before you go, make sure you know more musicians. Make sure you know more of these people and how their life is like. If you are convinced that, ‘Yes. These people inspire me.’ Let’s say you at 35 years old. Look at a musician where he’s 55 years old now. When you get to 55 years old, is that how you want to be? If that inspires you, great. Go ahead.

You are responsible for yourself. If you make that choice, make it happen. You get there. You should not have any regrets.

Joseph: Having been through this career change, Rei, what’s one thing you’ve learned about yourself?

Rei: I learned that I really have to be responsible for whatever that I’m looking for. I don’t have to get the approval of others to whatever that I’m seeing. I don’t have to doubt the clarity of my perception because of naysayers. I stopped blaming naysayers for discouraging me, because they have not gone through what I’ve gone through. They will not understand the underlying motivations of my intention.

Joseph: I want to wrap up, Rei, by talking about your side project, which I know you eluded to at the beginning of this conversation, which is your online magazine, which is Fairy Marraine. Can you just tell us a little bit about why you started that and what it’s all about?

Rei: I started this because the beauty scene over here in Asia is growing. A lot of investment companies, they are pumping in a lot of money into medical aesthetics.

It is an online magazine that I set up. Hopefully, I can get involved in this industry, because I also have some interest in beauty and wellness. Basically, it’s an expression of my passion for digital marketing.

Joseph: Very cool. If somebody’s listening to this, and they want to learn a little bit more about your online magazine or if they just want to check it out, where can they go?

Rei: They can go to FairyMarraine.com.

Joseph: All right. We will include a link to your online magazine in the show notes. I’ve checked it out. It’s very cool. I encourage people to check that out.

I just wanted to thank you, Rei, for telling us more about your life as a former professional pianist, your transition into the corporate world, and also all the great lessons you learned along the way. I just want to wish you best of luck with your digital marketing role and with your online magazine.

Rei: Thank you, Joseph.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is dedicated to helping people relaunch their careers and have more meaningful careers. As a public speaker, career consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch® podcast, he shares insights from relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals to more effectively marketing their personal brands.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.