Friday, 17 February 2012

if we're too busy, we miss out on the best things

The Washington Post Joshua Bell experiment...


A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. 

Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32.

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?


We need to make more time for the beautiful things in life. 


  1. I know there were some critical comments levelled at this "experiment" in other places but you are absolutely right about this. We had a three year old visiting us earlier in the week. I took her outside to show her where the sweetcorn plants were growing.(She is particularly fond of eating them apparently.)
    They are taller than she is and she looked up at them in absolute wonder. "Aren't they beautiful? I didn't know it would be so big."

  2. I'm surprised he wasn't arrested.

  3. This is a wonderful post and you are so right. It is important to stop and take the time. I did exactly that this week and it made me feel so much better. Let's regain the interest and innocence of a three year old and 'stop and listen'

  4. What a wonderful post, and an important call to listen. What else are we missing, indeed?

  5. We always like to think that we're different, that *we* would be the ones to stop and listen (and I actually might have in this particular scenario, as I love that piece and would have a good chance of recognizing Bell after having had a drink with him about 12-15 years ago, but it's likely that i wouldn't have stopped if it had been a different piece, or a different instrument, or a different performer.

  6. If your job depended on your being on time, if you had small children whose kita charged 25 pounds if you were a minute late picking up, if you needed to be somewhere because others depended on you- would you really stop?

  7. Of course I understand that we can't all stop, all of the time - that wasn't really the point of the post.

  8. Ok. Because I read the original article some time ago and then I read your post and in both cases it made me feel as if the point was that I was a philistine because I probably would not have stopped. I live in a major city and I pass people playing in the U system all the time- sometimes quite well. But I am generally running to make appointments (and most especially to get my children) and I don't stop. I stop in cities where I am a tourist, and it doesn't matter. But not during my regular life, when I am time constrained. So if the point of the post is not that we should stop, what is the point? A general sense of sadness that life is rushed? A wish that we were retired or on vacation so that we could stop? Perhaps I am reading into your post the judgementalism I read in the original article.

  9. That's certainly not my point, because I'm not saying that I would have stopped, either. I guess the general feeling that I was trying to convey [to myself as well as whoever's reading] is that we should look for beauty in everything - I don't just mean people playing in stations. I mean just taking the time to notice things that perhaps we wouldn't normally take notice of. Small things - anything. And thinking about how those types of things can pop up in strange places. Of course we're all busy [especially at rush hour], but I just find it interesting that these things could be happening and we might not notice. It certainly wasn't supposed to be a preachy post, or a high-and-mighty post; it's a memo to myself, too!

  10. Thank you for posting this! I can only imagine how much we miss out on. I know in the past year or so I've been trying to stop more, take in the 'wow', but I still get caught up so often. Thank your for the reminder to pause and appreciate what's in front of us!


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