January 2009

Good afternoon!

One of the unintended consequences of a 24-7 blackberry/twitter world is that our attentions are seldom focused. During the inaugural, I met a pro athlete who told me that several thousand people were following his every (and I mean every) move through a new technology: twitter (My question, who cares? But obviously I am wrong...many do). Like me, you likely flit from activity to activity, crisis to crisis...overwhelmed and even 'high' on movement and stimulus trying to take in all that is available. For many of us, the elusive goal of simply trying to get on top of our lives seems unachievable. We are spending more and more time with our ipods, iphones, computers, and other slick devices and less and less time with people or pondering. Yes, pondering; observing, being struck by the awe and pain of life and the simple things around us.

One of my dear friends and mentors, John Whitehead, former Chairman of Goldman Sachs, did something incredible when he was running the firm. John would take off the month of August each year and was 'unreachable'. Is that insane or what? But just possibly, the greatest of the man’s virtues lies in this discipline of breaking the insane rhythms of busyness.

17th century French thinker Blaise Pascal observed, “Nothing is so intolerable to man as being fully at rest, without a passion, without business, without entertainment, without care.” Even back then he spoke of 'diversions' or activities simply intended to take up our time, preventing us from thinking, observing, listening, or feeling. And that was in the 17th century (Wouldn't you love to see a debate between Blaise Pascal and Steve Jobs of Apple...but then all is possible -'yes, we can!'- given the new technologies).

Sometime back, I came across the experiment related below with a violinist in the Metro in Washington, DC. I was reminded of it again when John Gray from Orlando kindly sent it my way recently. It raises a number of important questions: Do we have time to take in beauty? Is listening to our surroundings a lost art? Is there any such thing as 'private' space in our lives any more? Do we have eyes to see? What is this relentless movement and stimuli actually doing to our heath... not having any restorative time?

The ancient wise men who in collaboration with God thought of the idea of a Sabbath might have been on to something. For centuries, 'blue laws' were typically observed even in secular cultures. The reasoning was that we needed a day free from work to rest, gain perspective, and focus upon the truly important things in life. Such 'limits' were deemed good for society, families, and individuals. Now, with the 24-7 world we live in, this is gone. So, I ask: Is that progress?

An assignment for me (and possibly you) might be to decide that next week you are going to do two things. First, block out two consecutive hours where you can merely think, sit, and walk. The key here is to have no agenda. This might be incredibly difficult for some of us. But, it should provide an excellent opportunity to learn about yourself. Take notes. Why was it so uncomfortable for some yet so energizing for others? Second, observe and write down 5 things that you typically might not 'see' unless you determined to do so. Pay attention to the mosaics in the lobby of your office building, the contours of a tree at dusk, listening to a great aria in a dark room, etc. There is beauty all around and it will feed our souls if we allow it. The trouble is that we live in cultures that don't prize the acts of pondering and observing. Our world celebrates 'action'. We are producing children that are driven...but to what end. Will they be 'richer' inside or merely richer?

Oops, got to go. I am a busy man! (The currency of our time is busyness...are we busy being busy?)

What is this life,
full of care.
if we have no time
to stand and stare.

w.h. davies

Be alert to what truly matters,



Violinist in the Metro

Violinist in the Metro

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 thousands of 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 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. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

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

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?


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