Preconceived Notions: Do They Cause Us to Miss Things

I came across an interesting story. It concerns an experiment that involved one of today’s premier muscians, violinist Joshua Bell. He is a virtuoso with the violin and sells out concerts around the world. This experiment involved Bell dressing in street clothes and playing his violin in a subway station. As detailed in this Washington Post article, entitled Pearls Before Breakfast, the question was whether or not anyone would pay attention to the man with the fiddle. Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked this question. His response? “Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”  When asked how much the musician would make his response was $150.

The reality of the situation was much different. Few people stopped, he only made $32, and as the following video shows only one person recognized him.


For the writers and commenters this raised the question “Are our lifes so rushed that we cannot slow down to appreciate the beauty in them?” To me it raises a question of preconceived notions. In this case we assume that if someone has to ply their musical trade in a subway they are not very good. We don’t even bother to listen to see if our preconceived notions and assumptions are true or not. In this case they were not. Bell is superb, yet few bothered to even give him a glance.

How about you. Do you have preconceived notions that should be reconsidered? Do you look at someone because of their age, race, color, education, etc. and assume they could not/should not work for you?


Photo credit: Mike Haberman

2 thoughts on “Preconceived Notions: Do They Cause Us to Miss Things”

  1. Great story — I remember reading it at the time and it was great to re-visit it. Applying that experience to the workplace is illuminating.

    As a consultant and investigator, I have seen "preconceived notion" scenarios frequently. Just as the commuters did not expect to be hearing a virtuoso in the subway station so they did not notice the caliber of the performance, managers and non-management employees often miss the caliber of suggestions and comments when they do not perceive the speaker to be an "expert" on whatever subject is at hand. All too often, I have heard about employees making great suggestions that are not taken seriously. Later, when an expensive consultant makes a similar (or identical) proposal, the powers-that-be fall all over themselves praising the professional's output. Meanwhile, the employees are shaking their heads and wondering if the fees paid to the consultant might have been used for better health care benefits or perhaps saving someone's job.

    Thanks for your interesting observations in this article and others.

  2. I believe you have two factors working together in this case – 1) the existence of preconceived notions and 2) a way of life which seldom provides us the opportunities to "stop and smell the roses."
    I remember I interviewed a woman several years ago that came highly recommended from someone I worked very closely with. I was shocked at how poorly she interviewed and dismissed her as a potential candidate rather quickly thinking her seemingly subpar communication skills would prevent her from being successful. My co-worker insisted that I was making a mistake. After several weeks of interviewing with no success, I was asked by my co-worker to give her one more look. Rather than meeting in my office, I planned a more casual meeting in the cafeteria over coffee. I shared with her my concerns over how she interviewed at which point she laughed and told me how she inherited that quality from her father. We had a fabulous conversation and I hired her the next week.
    This individual is one of the best Analyst we have on staff today. Clients love her and we often send her in to resolve the worst of situations. Once I talked to her outside the formal interview environment, I saw and heard a different person. I just had to stop and look at the picture a little differently.
    As for the second factor – daily schedules, life's seemingly endless demands and the technology that enables us to stay connected to our jobs 24/7 – we not only don't smell the roses, we simply don't see them. I believe we are dangerously close to living in the "technological sweatshop." How many times late at night do people logon and work from home on something that just came in today and is due tomorrow? How many times do people pickup their BlackBerry's while on a family vacation, child's sporting event or family gathering to respond to an e-mail that just came in? It raises some interesting questions about the impact of technology on work/life balance. Perhaps if we weren't so electronically connected, we would see and smell the roses; we would hear the beautiful music of the world-class violinist. Perhaps…

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