Stop and Hear the Music

Prepare yourselves…DEFCON 4 on the cheese-o-meter today.


HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a young white guy in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin.

Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed several pieces, 1,097 people passed by.

The behavior of one passing demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted their child away in a hurry away from this “strange man.”

But the amazing part of this story is that this “strange man” was Joshua Bell, the most famous and talented violinist in the world.  Just two days earlier Joshua Bell had played his $3 million violin to a sold out crowd in Boston for $100+ per seat. Joshua Bell averages about $1,000/ minute for playing in front of kings, royalty and Popes.  Now, two days later he stood in a subway station in Washington D.C. without receiving hardly a second glance.

Joshua Bell’s own account is fairly humorous, “I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.”

Why was he playing at the D.C. Metro Station?  It was a study to see if people would recognize genius with no context or familiarity of the normal surroundings of this incredible artist.


So many times we miss the beautiful things that are right in front of us because they don’t look like what we think they need to look like.

We go looking for amazing things in amazing places. When they are actually right under our nose.

  • How many times have we met someone and not paid any attention to them or not really listened to what they had to say because of how they looked?
  • How many times have we worked next to someone and not known something so critical to their life that even a stranger notices?
  • How many times do you say “I’m too busy”?
  • How many times do we shoot down an idea or fear trying something new?
  • We all migrate towards the things that we think are going to get us somewhere.  We want a specific car or job title or status.  But are we missing something when we think like that?

The poet Billy Collins once observed that all babies are born with knowledge of poetry, because the beat of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.

I think about my own life.  From the time I was a baby I had to be taught and told certain things.  How much of that was influenced by what happened to be the world around us.

  • We learn how to judge people
  • We learn about socioeconomic status
  • We learn about racism and many other things that may in fact put up walls around our thinking instead of tearing them down

So, what can we do?

How can we re-learn to see the beauty in life; to see the things no one else seems to notice?  And more than that, how can we learn to think differently to the point of becoming innovative, excellent or genius even?


Practice and Hard work.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the high performing athletes, innovators and geniuses of history.  Were they all overnight sensations?  No.  Like then, you too can think differently.  You can actually practice this.  You may fail 100 times, but hard work and practice can change anything

  • Einstein failed hundreds of times before inventing the light bulb
  • Formula 409 is named “409” for a reason.  The first 408 formulas didn’t work
  • WD-40 isn’t named WD-39 for a reason

How do we become innovative thinkers?

Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading researcher into high performance, states:

That it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work at it.”

“We’ve found, in our work with executives at dozens of organizations, that it’s possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest.”

So basically, they are saying….wait for it, this is going to blow your mind…
Work Hard and Take Breaks!

Here, then, are the six keys to achieving excellence

1. Pursue what you love. If you really want to be a Broadway dancer, then you’re probably not going to innovate as a web designer.

2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.

3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity.

4. Seek expert feedback, in small doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback like a fire hose can create static noise, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.

5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.  You’ve got 90 minutes to focus on a task. Then your mind needs a break.

6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. None of us have much of it.  The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

2011-01-31T16:05:58+00:00 January 31st, 2011|

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