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What the Cello, the Trombone and Your Business Have in Common

I am not a musician. I do not play the cello or the trombone. I need a road map to find middle C on the piano. When my son was growing up he did play both instruments and I recently found a business lesson in his experience that is worthy of sharing.

In the fourth grade, my son was required to learn a musical instrument. He chose the bass. The problem was I could not rent the bass and keep it at the school. I would have had to transport the bass back and forth in the car twice a week. Not happening. He begrudgingly settled on the cello.

I never saw the cello. It was in my house, a large bulky package under a brown zipped case. I saw that, but I never saw the actual instrument. I will admit as an emergency room doctor working around the clock, our schedules did not always coincide, but the law of averages says I should have seen it at least once or twice in a nine month school year.

Fast forward to the spring concert. (I use the term loosely) My friend said, “Oh, he’s first chair.” What does that mean? I asked. “It means he’s the best player” he said. Mother’s pride be damned, I burst out laughing.

Middle school started in September – new school, new instrument. He chose the drums. The music teacher’s exact words were “The last thing I need is another bad drummer. Here’s the trombone.” And another instrument begrudgingly made its way into my home.

He was required to practice fifteen minutes a day and hand in a practice log every Friday. The clock started ticking the moment his hand touched the case. Five minutes to set up the instrument and music stand and five minutes to tear it down left five minutes of practice a night.

A few weeks in and every night of practice began its downward spiral. The music teacher started calling the house to let me know that my son wasn’t completing assignments. This is the point where every parent understands the true meaning of the cliché about the horse, the water and dehydration.

Before I knew it, I was sitting at another spring concert. He wasn’t first chair, but he did hold his own. We made it! We were done with required musical instruments! The following September he had a choice – he could either take an instrument or go to study hall.

Imagine my surprise when he came home that first day of school and announced he had decided to take music again. Why?” I asked. “People say I have talent” he said in all of his sixth grade wisdom. I told him I don’t care what people say – go to study hall.

So, what’s more important, talent or tenacity? The argument could be made that my son had talent. He didn’t wind up in the first chair position because he was the only cello player.

I believe what my son really had was natural ability. In a small pool of applicants, his natural ability got recognized as talent and rewarded with first chair. But he wasn’t willing to put in the hours of hard work to turn his natural ability into a talent. That takes tenacity.

So what about you? Can you be successful in business with one and not the other? The answer is no. Talent without tenacity will disintegrate into wasted potential. It may take some time and you may fool people, even yourself but you cannot have sustained success without both, especially tenacity.

You can learn a skill and become talented at it but no one can teach you to be tenacious. You need desire to become tenacious. My son wasn’t interested in playing an instrument because he loved it; he had no desire – he got caught up in praise from other sixth graders.

When I was a brand new doctor, I wasn’t good at making diagnoses or performing procedures. But a system of teachers was there to mentor me and I was willing to spend hours studying to turn myself into the talented doctor I am today.

As a society we overemphasize talent – it lets us off the hook. You’re a natural; I don’t have your talent. Do you think Michael Phelps is a household name because he is talented? Michael Phelps spent six hours a day, six days a week in the pool.

As you ponder your own accomplishments and what it took to get there, I ask that you apply this theory to your organization as well. What do you value at your company – talent or hard work? What do you reward? Who gets promoted in your organization? Who is sitting in your first chair?

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