A Lesson From a Student’s Birthday

I wrote about Ben Zander and his irrepressible spirit in my last blog.

I admired Ben Zander long before I met him or invited him to guest lecture to my students at Columbia Business School and London Business School.

I first used him as an example in one of my marketing courses. Ben was the conductor of a prestigious orchestra and so passionate about the power of music to elevate souls that he offered an unusual guarantee. “You will be moved by my concert, or I will refund your ticket.”

Orchestras do not offer refunds to patrons who do not like a performance. So, the money came from Ben’s personal funds. In the many years he offered this guarantee only a handful took him up on it. I used this as an example of innovative marketing.

It is also a reflection of the kind of person Ben is and how different his thinking is from the norm.

In the music world, the conductor is God and musicians all but genuflect before him — they used to be mostly men. If a first violinist made an error the conductor’s normal reaction would be “Off with her head” and a new body would replace the errant performer.

When such an event occurred with Ben, his reaction was, “What am I doing wrong that my first violinist, who is terribly talented, cannot play her best and makes a mistake like this?”

I learnt a valuable lesson when I invited Ben Zander to speak to my class at London Business School.

Ben learned that it was the birthday of one of the students and insisted that it be celebrated. Someone procured a cake and someone else got hold of a wilted candle and we lit the candle and put it on the cake and the embarrassed birthday girl blew out the candle and we all sang “Happy Birthday”.

It was well intentioned but perfunctory and over in minutes.

I am sure that you have seen something similar many times at work and elsewhere.

Ben stood observing on the sideline.

He did not utter a word of criticism. He did not say, “No! No! No! You dummies! You are doing it all wrong.”

He simply said, “Let’s try this again.”

He urged us to put ourselves into the singing. The candle was relit and went back on the cake and Ben put it before the student and gazed into her eyes and held her hands as he led the class in a heartfelt chorus of “Happy Birthday”.

“That’s how you do it,” said Ben.

Everybody, but everybody, understood what he meant. We all felt the difference.

And here is my question to you: What are you doing desultorily that you could do with mindful care? Would it bring more meaning into your life and that of others? Why aren’t you doing it?





Srikumar Rao is the author of “Are You Ready to Succeed?” and creator of the celebrated MBA course, “Creativity & Personal Mastery.” // theraoinstitute.com

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Srikumar S Rao

Srikumar S Rao

Srikumar Rao is the author of “Are You Ready to Succeed?” and creator of the celebrated MBA course, “Creativity & Personal Mastery.” // theraoinstitute.com

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