Do You Stop and Smell the Roses?

Most of us have had the opportunity to see street performers. A musician, maybe a magician, maybe a pantomime. Here’s a 2ish minute video of a violinist playing classical music in a subway station in DC in the middle of rush hour:

During the 45 minutes the violinist played, more than a 1,000 people passed by. It’s fast-forwarded, so it’s almost impossible to see, but less than 30 people stopped to listen to the music. If it wasn’t fast-forwarded you could have seen a little boy stopping by to listen, but his mother yanks him to move forward, not to pause and smell the roses. The violinist got just over $50 in “donations” from all the passersby during the 45 minutes he played.

Sounds about right? Until you know that the violin was a $3m+ Stradivarius and the violinist was Joshua Bell, widely considered to be one of the best violinists alive, and his concert tickets easily go for $100+. That’s a mighty big rose that the 1,000+ people passed by vs. the less than 5% who stopped by, including a person who recognized him and was responsible for $20 of the “donations.” This was part of an experiment conducted by Gene Weingarten which he wrote about in the Washington post more than 15 years ago (and won a Pulitzer Prize for it!).

This is not a new phenomenon. Gene Weingarten reported a year later that he found an example of a similar experiment conducted in the 1930s by a then-famous violinist in Chicago, with similar results: less than $10 in “donations” and only one person recognized that famous violinist.

What could be the cause of that? Are we afraid of being idle?

Just last time we talked about Seeing Money Grow on Trees and how a surprising number of passerby missed out on seeing, and enjoying, the “fruits” of the money-tree. Gerald offered intriguing explanations for why folks didn’t see, really see, the money tree. Perhaps because we’ve become desensitized to seeing things on the street?

Which begs the question, especially in a month when we’re focused on growth, do we want to “regrow” our senses and not ignore the “roses” on the side of the road? What’s causing us to not see the roses? ARE WE PURPOSEFULLY “NOT SEEING”?

23 thoughts on “Do You Stop and Smell the Roses?

  1. I remember reading about the violinist’s story many years ago and being dumbfounded. I think people are busy, rushing, and in their heads. While being productive isn’t a bad thing, I suspect people have trouble switching between their hyper-focused achievement and leisure mindsets. Additionally, even when someone has purchased a ticket to an enjoyable event, I think that some folks have a hard time letting their guard down due to trauma or fear. For many, idleness is a chore or a lost opportunity cost.

    As for regrowth, I think we need to be intentional and purposeful in paying attention. I can’t help but think of the childhood games of “Slug Bug” and “I Spy”, both of which require paying attention to our surroundings. Similarly, this brings to mind Wynne’s weekly heart photo, where she finds love in leaves, food, and smears of toothpaste. I bet that reintroducing such paying attention games or goals could help us build up the habits of noticing.

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  2. I was thinking something similar to what Erin shared above…but she said it better! 😉I think the ‘switching’ between hustling and relaxing is tough for a lot of folks. Especially in a bustling city venue, I think I’m like a lot of the people who just pass by…intent on what’s ahead instead of what’s right in front of me. What a beautiful reminder to slow down, EW. 😎

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a beautiful way of capturing this truth, Vicki! Just yesterday my neighbor was sharing with me the severe health problems his parents are experiencing, the challenges at work, and how much he’s struggling with “living in the present.” If only he had you as a neighbor to share your insights as well as you did 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very rich and complicated topic, Endless Weekend. The composition in question is one of J.S. Bach”s greatest works for solo violin. Many possible explanations are worth considering in trying to explain the inattention of most ot the public.

    It took place, of course, in a subway, a venue that exits as a form of “rapid transit.” Joshua Bell would have gotten more attention in a public park on a sunny Sunday.

    Another contributing factor might have been the music. Bell was playing a piece that sounds strange to many of those who are used to vocal music of our time — tunes one can hum or whistle. Bach’s music demands time, experience, and effort, rather as Shakespeare does — almost like an unfamiliar language. Only after such an initiation to this piece can one realize it is one of mankind’s greatest creations.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Gerald! As I said in the post, it was a previous comment of yours that reminded me of this experiment, and kudos for recognizing the music! In the 45 minutes Joshua Bell played, he played 2 Bach pieces, and 4 others, a Massenet, a Schubert, a Ponce, and another 🙂 Could it have gotten different results with different music? Good question.

      I do believe context is key. There’s a splendid story that Queen Elizabeth’s bodyguard tells of 2 American tourists near Balmoral Castle who bumped into QEII and him taking a walk and failed to recognized her “out of context” in the most hilarious way:

      Worth the 2 minute watch!

      To keep the post short, I cut out what happened a few years later, in a “do-over” concert by Joshua Bell at a different DC subway station:

      Is context the key? What can we do to set ourselves not to miss things “out of context”?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oooh…another good one. I think we focus on the destination not the journey. I think we like to rush things waiting to get to the good part and don’t realize that this is the good part. I had two experiences this week that sort of epitomize this thinking, both cases me reminding someone of what’s important in that moment. Great post

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I can share broad strokes of one of them. My husband and I went to DC on Monday to bring home some of my daughters stuff. We got there, packed the car, and my daughter had planned a special outing before we headed home that wasn’t in our original plan. My husband was grousing about it because he wanted to get home, and I said cherish this moment…you’re 21 year old daughter wants to spend time with you. How often can we say that?


  5. I love this post and all the comments! Geez, EW, you have such a gift of writing thinks to make us re-think!! And I love the story about the American tourists and the Queen.

    This reminds me of the work of Dr. Alison Gopnik. She describes the neural pathways in a kids’ brains like the streets of Old Paris – narrow, windy and they go all over. But adult brains have neural pathways that look like boulevards – they go less places but we can go faster. Kids’ brains are rewarded for finding the things that can teach them the most whereas adult brains are focused on what we can get done.

    Dr. Gopnik recommends spending time with kids to break out of our molds. I’d also argue spending time with you or one of your posts will do the same!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This has to be one of the highest compliments you could pay me: thank you so very much! Especially in view of your post from yesterday about you “maintain” your sense of wonder. I’m honored to the depth of my bones: THANK YOU!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m glad that story won a Pulitzer. What a statements on how rushed we are when don’t stop to smell the roses. On my morning walks, I stop and take photos with my iphone of sights that amaze me. This morning I kept stopping because there was so much beauty. My husband was patient until we were two blocks away from home and he had to get to work!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved this post, EW. It’s been a difficult winter and I have struggled to find a balance. In an effort to come to a more peaceful place, I have been very purposely stopping to smell the roses whenever possible. It’s amazing, the things you see when you stop to look, but like everyone else, I have to work hard at it. It doesn’t come naturally. That video was a bit painful to watch… such a great reminder that roses are all around us! Thank you so much for this…🙏🙏🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Patti, I appreciate your words so very much! I was just talking to my neighbor the other day about the struggles of finding that balance between chasing our tales and finding the wherewithal to stop and spot and then smell the roses.

      We’ve been so conditioned to run ahead to chase the next thing that sometimes a little reminder can really do the trick. I hope it was painful to watch only in the best way possible…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Many people just don’t notice things. Doesn’t matter where the roses are they won’t see them. They live life with blinders on, not seeing or feeling a thing, just plodding along. I am kind of the opposite and notice almost too much– which wears me out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Who was it that asked “is it living or just persisting”? There might be way too many people persisting rather than living.

      Though I can imagine that being hyperattentive can be exhausting: what do you do to recharge yourself?


  9. This is a very fascinating experiment indeed and in this case, I think part of it is about perceptions of value. It’s a subway performer so it can’t be of value as if I paid $150 to watch a violinist in a professionally staged orchestra show.

    Part of it is also busy are just rushing to get on with their busy days. Which further reinforces your point that we just need to slow down sometimes to smell the roses!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you also found it fascinating, I did the first time I saw it and I do now, more than a decade later, and I’m still struggling with it: do we mainly judge books by their cover? Do we assume for the most part that if it costs more it’s worth more? As I’m writing it, I’m thinking that in most cases, we do… What do you think?

      And, yes, it is difficult to slow down and smell the roses, but then one wonders, what’s the point of rushing around with our busy days if not for an opportunity to smell some roses at some point?

      Liked by 1 person

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