Tuesday, 18 May 2010

How much talent are you overlooking?

At 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, at the entrance to the tube station, a nondescript, youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a baseball cap removes a violin from a small case. Placing the open case at his feet, he throws in a few coins as “seed money”, swivels it to face pedestrian traffic, and begins to play.

In the next 43 minutes, the violinist performs six classical pieces. 1,097 people pass by. Almost all of them are on the way to work, mainly in government jobs.

Three minutes elapse before something happens. Sixty-three people have already passed when a middle-age man turns his head to notice that there seems to be some guy playing music. The man keeps on walking.

A half-minute later, the violinist gets his first donation. A woman throws a few coins into the open case and rushes off without stopping.

After six minutes one commuter actually stands against a wall, and listens.

Things don’t get much better for the violinist. In the three-quarters of an hour that the violinist plays
  • 7 people stop what they are doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute.
  • 27 give money, most of them on the run.
  • The violinist collects a total of $32.
  • 1,070 people hurry by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
One of the passers by who didn’t even bother stopping was a high-ranking HR professional. "Yes, I saw the violinist," she says, "but nothing about him struck me as much of anything."

Let’s have a look at her judgement:
  • The violinist was 39 year old Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.
  • Three days earlier, Bell had filled the house at Boston's Symphony Hall, where the most basic of seats went for $100. He normally commands around $1,000 a minute for his performances.
  • He was playing the "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell describes it as it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.”
  • The violin was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. Bell had bought the violin a few years ago. He had to sell his own Stradivarius and borrow much of the rest to pay for it. He’s understandably a bit coy about how much he paid, but the price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.
OK HR professionals: Only one question: how much talent are you overlooking in your organisations?

Washington Post: Pearls Before Breakfast (including video)


  1. I am sure we are all guilty of hearing without actually listening or looking without seeing.

    In this tale Joshua was practising his art for all to hear. How many more times do individuals within organisations keep their talents hidden?

    Yes, employers should tap into the talents of all their employees but equally employees should offer their talents whenever the opportunity presents itself.

    Too many lights and too many bushels.


  2. Sadly I have to confess that when I first had this story related to me, I thought it was probably one of those urban myths which, upon investigation, prove to be apocryphal.

    I guess that says a bit about my innate scepticism!

    But yes,there's an overwhelming amount of talent and goodness out there if only we look for it

  3. Hi Graham,

    Another way to look at this example is that Joshua didn't do a good job of promoting himself. He chose a setting where commuters weren't likely to stop and listen to him, no matter how beautiful the music. Being good at something is only 1 piece of the puzzle. One also needs to be in the right place at the right time to have the maximum impact.

    By the way, Joshua Gutsche uses this same example in his book, Exploiting Chaos. It's an entertaining and informative read on the subject of business innovation

    Good post Graham; thanks for sharing!