Are We Missing Greatness In Front of Us?

Anyone who has taken a subway has encountered street musicians.  Sometimes they’re great. Sometimes they’re not.

But they’re always interesting.

I’ve seen them on the sidewalks in San Francisco.  One young man, probably 10-years old, wore an ill-fitting suit and tie while he squawked a few notes on his trumpet.  The coin-filled case in front of him held a sign of explanation: “Help me get trumpet lessons.”

No matter how good they are, one thing remains the same: almost no one stops to listen.

People avoid eye contact, talk on their cell phones, and rush to their next appointment.  Some appear irritated because the music is too loud or annoying (meaning the sound interfered with the music coming through their earbuds).  Others are so used to it, that they couldn’t even tell you someone was there.

Occasionally, someone will slow enough to drop a few coins in their case.  There might be one or two that slow down for a few seconds and listen – but they soon rush on with their responsibilities.

But what if the musician was really good?  Would we stop?  Would we allow a little beauty into our day, or would it be crowded out by busyness?

Joshua BellThe Washington Post decided to find out.  In 2007, they put Joshua Bell by the entrance to a subway station in Washington, D.C.  Simply stated, he’s one of the best violinists in the world.

A virtuoso.  He usually earns about $1000 per minute when he plays.

And he was playing a 1713 Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million.

Joshua wore a long-sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap, and stood next to a trash can.  For 45 minutes, he played six intricate classical pieces.

1,097 people passed by.  It took six minutes for anyone to acknowledge his presence, until a middle-aged man slowed slightly, looked for a moment – then resumed his pace.

A line of people buying lottery tickets a few feet away produced no glances.

In 45 minutes, only 7 of the 1,097 people stopped and listened for a few seconds.

For Joshua’s efforts, he collected $32 in change.

There was one person who tried to stop and listen, craning his neck and twisting to get a better view.  He did everything he could to get to Joshua and hear the concert.  He instinctively knew he was in the presence of greatness.

But he couldn’t.  His mom kept dragging him by the hand, because they were late.

Evan was three-years old.

We’re busy.  We’re doing important things, talking to important people, and attending important meetings.  We have important places to be and important deadlines to meet.

But what are we missing while we’re doing all those important things?

Are we missing greatness that’s right in front of us?

It might not be a virtuoso playing a priceless instrument.

It might be a child’s voice. Or a spouse’s heart.  A bird’s song, or a simple flower.

It might be slowing down enough to listen to our own thoughts.  Or just to listen, period.

The poet W.H. Davies wrote:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?

There’s greatness all around us.  Let’s slow down a bit today and find it.

If we’re too busy with our important stuff, we’ll miss the wonder.


The original article is long.  But you’ll love it if you love writing/reading (it won a Pulitzer Prize), love music (fascinating perspective for musicians) or love reading about people and their behavior.  It contains video clips of the performance as well.  You’ll find it here.




Senior Consultant at FranklinCovey; Speaker, Author of 5 books – including “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys,” “I Wish He Had Come With Instructions,” and “Dealing With the Elephant in the Room.” (See Book page)

  • Minaa

    Love this! It was a 3 year old, I want to be a kid forever! Thanks for the reminder to slow down and that life is not a 911. Time is my greatest enemy, its the urgency of having to be somewhere or do more. Being intentional about not to overbook my days 🙂

    • Yeah, we lost that 3-year old sense of wonder over the years. I think we can get it back . . . but it’s always an intentional choice. Thanks, Mina!

  • Junko

    Deepak chopra: the most important person in your life is the one sitting in front of you!

  • Sometimes it takes a tragedy or a near death experience to slow down and really experience life, the way we should see and experience it. I wish I could, but reality sets in and the “unimportant” becomes important. It’s a shame : (

    • You’re right – I wonder why that is? Kind of like how nobody backs up their computer until it crashes. I guess that’s how we learn. . . thanks!