Washington DC – a metro station
The top of the escalator
7:51 am, Friday morning rush hour
A man puts down his cap for money, gets out his violin and starts to play. He performs classical pieces for the next 43 minutes.
In that time, 1,097 people pass by, mostly on their way to work. Just about everyone walks straight past ignoring him. Of the people queuing at the lottery stand across the arcade not one person looks over at him.
The 64th passer-by is the first to turn his head towards the music, just for a second. After 4 minutes someone throws some money in the hat. After 6 minutes someone stops for a couple of minutes to listen, then walks on. After 10 minutes a 3-year old boy stops, but his mother pulls him along while he keeps turning around to look. In fact, every single time a child walks past it tries to stop and watch; and every single time, a parent pulls the kid away.
In 43 minutes, of the 1,097 passers-by in all 6 people stop to listen for a while. The man playing the violin collects $32.17 from his hat at the end.
How do we know this?
Because the event was being monitored by the Washington Post. A famous violinist had agreed with the newspaper to play in the underground as an experiment – would people respond in that setting, or not?
The violinist was Joshua Bell.
He is one of the finest classical musicians in the world. He was playing some of the greatest music ever written on a Stradivarius violin worth over 3 million dollars. He had played in Boston’s stately Symphony Hall three days previously to a packed house with people paying $100 plus per seat. Hundreds had crowded round the stage door afterwards for a glimpse of him. The newspaper in setting up this experiment was prepared for crowd problems, people flocking to the scene, traffic backing up …
The actual results shocked them.
To get feedback they took some people’s telephone numbers during the experiment telling them they were going to call later about the subject of commuting. They then followed up on 40 people the same evening. Most people hadn’t even noticed a violinist on their way to work. Only one person mentioned the violinist spontaneously: “It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.” he said. One other had recognised him “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” she says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking.” Bell himself, watching a video of the event later found himself mystified less by people being in a hurry than by the fact that most people paid no attention at all as if he were invisible. Interestingly the children noticed – they were all affected by Bell’s violin playing.
One person who didn’t miss the treat was project manager at the Department of Energy, John Mortensen. He heard the music as he headed up the escalator on his way to work. He didn’t have more than a couple of minutes to spare. On the video you see him get off the escalator and look around. He sees the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his mobile then settles against a wall to listen for a few minutes. He knows nothing at all about classical music but for the first time in his life he stops to listen to a street musician and gives him money. Asked about it afterwards he said he felt compelled to stop because the music made him feel at peace.
The thought springs to mind – if we miss one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the finest music ever written on one of the most beautiful instruments ever made … then what else might we be missing?
When in my teens I read W H Davies’ poem about having time to stand and stare, I used to think that noticing things was a matter of having enough time or indeed nothing better to do – okay if you’re a wanderer like Davies, you have all the time in the world, but not if you have a busy job.
I don’t think that any more.
I now think it’s not a time issue; it’s about being open to it – which means not just seeing and hearing but feeling too.
- Like really hearing a blackbird one morning just for a few moments, the same blackbird you’ve heard countless times before, and thinking, wow, that’s truly amazing;
- Like stopping for ten seconds to realise you are happy at a moment when you are happy;
- Like being with someone and suddenly feeling how great it is to have this person in your life just this moment now.
- Like feeling the warmth of realising that this decision is the thing to do.
“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”
The trouble with busy-ness is not so much that it takes up time; it’s more that it hides something. In busy mode I feel so pleased with myself that I can do two things at once – use the internet while I’m travelling by train, text as I walk from the station or speak to someone on my mobile while I’m also clearing kitchen surfaces, putting clothes away or even … don’t go there. But in busy mode I’m just that. Busy.
So maybe we don’t need more time; but just need a different way of looking – a way that opens us to the miraculous – and good judgement too.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
When I’m training, a great excitement is being there when a participant has an “ah-ha” moment. Suddenly they notice something that has always been there but not been seen before, and everything shifts. Coaching too is often about noticing things you haven’t noticed before. If someone can help you learn how to do that, go for it. It’ll transform your life and work and take you to some miraculous places.
The W. H. Davies poem? Here it is.
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
June already – height of summer!
If you have just one moment today, what will you notice I wonder? …