Music Ed Monday – The Starfish Story

Strolling along the edge of the sea, a man catches sight of a young woman who appears to be engaged in a ritual dance. She stoops down, then straightens to her full height, casting her arm out in an arc. Drawing closer, he sees that the beach around her is littered with starfish, and she is throwing them one by one into the sea. He lightly mocks her: “There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see, for miles up the beach. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?” Smiling, she bends down and once more tosses a starfish out over the water, saying serenely, “It certainly makes a difference to this one.”

starfishIsn’t that a lovely story? While originally by Loren Eisley, I read it in Ben and Rosamund Zander’s The Art of Possibility, which we’re doing as a trial run for the Fundamentals III novel study. It’s a wonderfully powerful read and challenges us from following the path of others in the world of measurement to our own path in the universe of possibility. In the words of a former student of mine, it challenges the reader to “stop stopping their lives and start starting them.”

Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, so many of his anecdotes and stories are musically-based, which resonates with both myself and my students. This chapter focuses on “Being a Contribution,” rather than being caught in the engine of competition. What if I stopped measuring my achievements and accomplishments against those of others and, instead, focused on just giving the world what I had to give? What if I’m just fine where I am? What if it’s okay to give what I have, and not worry about giving what I don’t?

When someone starts thinking like that, the focus immediately switches from seeing the obstacles (“needing to give what you don’t have”) to seeing the progress (“it’s okay to give what I have”).

Ben Zander follows this story with this:

From our earliest days, we understand that there are tasks ahead of us to accomplish and landmarks to achieve. Life often looks like an obstacle course. In order to maximize success, we spend a good deal of time discussion what stands in the way of it. The man in the story sees only obstacles when he speaks of the countless starfish. He warns the young woman that her gestures are futile. Too many starfish, not enough time, not enough staff or resources, results too difficult to track…

The story told, however, reveals nothing about the “success” or “failure” of the rescue mission, or what proportion of the starfish survived or perished. It does not describe the past, nor foretell the future. All we hear is that the young woman was smiling and serene, and that she moved in the pattern of a dance. Absent are the familiar measurements of progress. Instead, life is revealed as a place to contribute and we as contributors. Not because we have done a measurable amount of good, but because that is the story we tell.

You just can’t measure all of the good, can you? Yet we try, especially in education. We need to assign a number to your progress. I don’t love it, but that is the institution where I’ve made my decision to contribute because I get to work with the most kids.

If I lived in the world of measurement, I may be saying “How can I make a difference in the world? I only see 120 kids a year? 120 out of millions! How can I impact the world when see so few kids?”

But now, if I live in a world of possibility, I could reframe that statement with something like: “I get to work with many individuals and some really need the help of teachers. Isn’t amazing that we get to be there and be positively present in their life?”

To be said another way: You don’t have to change the world to make a difference in it.


– Pick up this book and read it slowly, chapter by chapter. When you’ve finished one chapter, think about it throughout the day and see where you can change your perception to reflect the ideas in the book. You might not take everything from it, but you might take something, and that’s a great start.

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