Innovation Blog:

Oh, Say Can You See?  How Innovators Can (and Must) Practice Sharpening Their Senses 

By Shlomo Maital

 Joshua Bell

    “Oh, say, can you see…” go the words of America’s national anthem, “in the dawn’s early light…”

      The answer for most of us is, frankly, No!   We cannot see.  Even in the bright sunshine of mid-day, let alone at dawn.  We cannot, do not, see.

      We do not see, hear, smell, taste or feel most of what goes on around us.  As a result, the spark for many great innovative ideas is utterly lost.  And much of the joy of daily life is lost.   

      Here is some vivid proof.   

       In a curious experiment initiated by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, [famed concert violinist Joshua]  Bell donned a baseball cap and played as an incognito street busker at the Metro subway station L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. on a cold winter morning,  on January 12, 2007.   

 What was the result of the experiment?  Weingarten wrote, in his article:[1]

      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 six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

       Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

     The experiment was videotaped on hidden camera; among 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen to him, and only one recognized him.  For his nearly 45-minute performance, Bell collected $32.17 from 27 passersby (excluding $20 from the passerby who recognized him).   (Weingarten won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his article on the experiment.)   

  Gene Weingarten concludes:

   A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

  There is a powerful lesson here.   

     Many wonderful things happen around us.  Most of them are seemingly small — a child playing a game, a puppy, a senior-citizen couple holding hands, a strange cloud — and most of the time, we are too busy, and in too much of a hurry to do “important” things, to take notice.   So when a world famous concert violinist plays in a subway station, few take notice.  They assume that a street musician is inferior,  otherwise, why in the world would he or she be a street musician?

      Let us vow to do the following, for the coming seven days:

      Seek to notice small unusual things or events.  When you find them, be aware of them.  Sharpen your vision.  Practice makes perfect.  As you take note of these things, you will find that spotting them becomes much easier.  No matter how hurried you are, stop and take notice.  Take time to delight in the small things the world offers. 

      In his book How to Think Like Da Vinci, Michael Gelb notes how da Vinci, perhaps the most creative person in the history of the world, exercised his creativity muscles constantly by sharpening all his senses:   sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell.   

     We may not become da Vinci.  But we can become far more observant of the wonders that unfold around us.   We can hear a street violinist,  and stop for a moment to listen, and put some money into his/her cap. 

     We can, with practice, answer the rhetorical question in The Star Spangled Banner:  Yes!  I can see. 


[1]  Gene Weingarten, Pearls Before Breakfast:  Washington Post, Sunday April 8 2007.