Yo-Yo Ma to the Rescue

Yo-Yo and Aidan

Returning from a spring break trip to Montana, my 14-year-old son Aidan and I were minding our own business, walking among the weary hordes of travelers at the Chicago airport. Then we noticed a slight commotion twenty feet ahead of us. A middle-aged woman had accidentally dropped her boarding pass, but since she wore an iPod, she was unable to hear the voices of people calling out. So the woman strode  briskly on, unaware.

Behind her, about a dozen people were doing what people usually do in those kinds of situations: they were yelling louder and louder, trying futilely to get iPod woman’s attention. Others (including us) were  instinctively slowing so we could see how this would play out.  In sum, nobody was doing much of  anything — except for a dark-haired guy in a black turtleneck.

The dark-haired guy  jumped out of the gathering crowd, snagged the fallen boarding pass and, calling “excuse me” in a loud voice, dashed up to deliver iPod woman’s boarding pass. Then the dark-haired turtleneck guy turned around, and — you guessed it — it’s Yo-Yo Ma.

As in, Yo-Yo Ma the cellist.  The six-time Grammy winner. The man who’s considered by many to be the most talented musician in the world. (Also, the guy I wrote about briefly in The Talent Code.)

This is a tiny moment. Perhaps it’s meaningless. But on the other hand, perhaps it raises some interesting questions about Ma’s mindset — and ours.

In the few seconds after the boarding pass fluttered to the ground, thirty people had the chance to act. Only one did, with an urgency and directness that seemed almost unconscious. In that brief time, Ma could have easily kept walking and let someone else take the lead. But that’s not how his mind works. He wasn’t thinking about himself or the crowd’s reaction. He was noticing a problem, and solving it.

I think that Ma’s mindset — outward-focused, perceptive, action-oriented — is no accident. Being a great performer, in the most profound sense, is not about the individual — rather, it’s about the music, or the athletic move, or whatever intricate series of thoughts and movements that are being connected. In truly great performances, the performer disappears.

We instinctively think geniuses are successful because they can get lost inside their private worlds, but I think this shows we might have it upside-down. Yo-Yo Ma isn’t successful because he’s lost in his own world. Rather, he’s successful, in part, because he is so deeply attentive to ours.

(Also, as the photo shows, he’s deeply warm to two strangers who chatted with him a few minutes later.)

P.S. — Apparently Yo-Yo isn’t the only one with this habit. Shinichi Suzuki (founder of the Suzuki Method) was once giving a concert when he suddenly ran offstage and down the aisle. The reason? A woman had accidentally left her purse behind; Suzuki wanted to return it.

(Thanks to Kimberly Meier-Sims of the Cleveland Institute of Music for sharing that memory.)