This story found its way into my in basket. It’s the sort of thing that you read and dismiss as an urban legend.
Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.
During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell , one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars .
Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
It’s a true story. The Washington Post won a pulitzer prize for the article based on this social experiment. (Read it here)
The interesting question is whether or not we can see talent in unexpected contexts. The general take away is that we see talent where we expect it. This is really important to understand when you are in the hunt for work whether it’s managing your career or starting from scratch.
Most people who are hiring have a relatively preconceived notion of what the right person for the job looks like. It’s a deeply embedded human problem as the Washington Post story demonstrates. They expect to find their classical musicians in concert halls, not subway stations. If you don’t meet their preconceived notion, in just the right way, you are not going to make the cut.
This is why so much of the advice you get about applying for a job or navigating an interview is about the interviewer’s perception. What you hear, over and over again, is that you should stick out in just the right way. You should use the context of the job hunt as a way of demonstrating that you fit in.
Conventional wisdom says that the best way to ace an interview is to figure out a “Goldilocks solution”. Be just right. Not too hot, not too cold, just right.
But, as you also see in the story, the greatest musician in the world, playing the most complex piece of music imaginable, couldn’t draw attention in a subway station. The alternative take on the story is that if you want conventional recognition for great conventional talent, don’t look for it in unconventional places.
When you dream your job into existence, you must dream it in detail: where you work; what’s the boss like; what you do each day. Know where talent like yours is recognized and where it is never seen. Too many people waste their time believing that their talent will be seen by a passerby in the subway station. It just doesn’t happen.
If you really want to be recognized for having talent in the way that you want to be recognized, you are probably an entrepreneur. No amount of coaching will help you find just the right job. You are relatively doomed to working for yourself.
If, on the other hand, you find that working for other people’s recognition and admiration is the important thing, get very clear about your dream; find the places where you will be able to pursue it and start persuading them that you are exactly right.