Violinist in the Subway – Can we Recognize Talent?

Perhaps you have heard the story:  Internationally acclaimed concert violinist Joshua Bell once agreed to don street clothes and play his $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin in a Washington DC subway station, as a social experiment, sponsored by the Washington Post. (Watch the video on YouTube)

Lots of “what-iffing” and supposing was done in advance.  What if he is recognized and a huge crowd gathers?  What if he went unrecognized; wouldn’t people still recognize his extraordinary talent and the difficult pieces he was playing, and stop in their tracks to listen?

So what happened?  Bell played 6 difficult pieces, for a total of 43 minutes.  No one applauded after the pieces ended.  A crowd never gathered.  A very small number of people recognized Bell, and commented to him, but didn’t really linger.  He collected $32.17 in his open violin case, but included in that was a $20 that one admirer gave him.  By the way, Bell took a cab back and forth to his hotel, not because he’s lazy, but to protect the valuable violin.

Sadly, talent often goes unrecognized.  There are too many good singers, dancers and actors to fill the available roles on Broadway and in film.  Too many good writers to fill the pages that fit on the dwindling bookshelves of the world.  And, in business, too many people who can do a great job that will never be discovered by the companies at which they apply.

Many if not most hiring managers do not work to discover whether someone can do the job.  They trust their gut, operate off of superficial first impressions, or even worse, use keywords to sort through resumes, and never even talk to people.  This is why hiring has never become more accurate.  Today, you have about a 57% chance that a new hire will succeed, little better than flipping a coin.  There are ways to discover the talent in a candidate, but they take a little work.  You have to ask relevant questions, then be attentive if “the music” (the person’s true capabilities) starts to play.

Hiring managers are out of their element in interviewing – it is not what they do best.  The few companies that do give their executives training in this discipline benefit greatly with better hires.  So, stop an listen to the music that just might be playing in your reception area, and find the virtuosos.


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Views: 1087

Comment by JoAnn Carlin-Revesz on July 14, 2011 at 12:02pm
Nice job Mark & so true - recognizing talent within & for your organization & utilizing it is very important!!
Comment by Charlie Allenson on July 14, 2011 at 12:08pm
Dead on piece.  Once in a while for laughs I'll do some guitar busking at the subway station near my apartment to pick up some ice cream money. Can you believe it - not a single person recognized me despite my perfect rendition of Bob Seger's Like a Rock and Tom Petty's Free Falling. I did make $5.50, though. Go figure. Seriously people are often so wrapped up by their own fear of not doing their job, they fail to see what there is in others. It pays to keep our collective eyes, ears and minds open to all sorts of possibilities.
Comment by Mark Bregman on July 14, 2011 at 12:40pm
Plus, urban life causes, almost requires, a certain level of anonymity - if you pay attention to those around you, you might get sucked in (heaven forbid) to a conversation!
Comment by Valentino Martinez on July 15, 2011 at 1:05am


Your post and example are interesting because they’re pointed at recruiters and hiring managers and their ability, or lack thereof, to detect or decipher talent when they see it in candidates being interviewed for employment. Or in individuals they come in contact with in completely unrelated circumstances.

The example of a virtuoso violinist playing classical pieces of music, on an exquisite instrument, in a public place—and being virtually ignored by the passing public speaks to that blindness—or deafness and blindness in this case. 

The fact is, outstanding, high potential individuals are in plain sight--as employees; as working professionals we actually engage with in each passing day--in business conversations; in a store, or at a party, at a ballgame, in a newspaper or website article--but we walk past them. 

Not recognizing talent is the Achilles Heel of the recruitment process because talent and potential are often overlooked by the very people tasked to be on the lookout for it.

Comment by Mark Bregman on July 15, 2011 at 4:47pm
Totally, Bill!


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