The (Negative) Power of Context

The (Negative) Power of Context

Thanks to Signal v Noise for pointing me to an amazing story in the Washington Post. It seems that in January of this year, the Post arranged to have Joshua Bell, a world famous violinist, to play his $3.5 million Stradivarius just outside the Metro escalators at the L’Enfant Plaza stop in Washington, DC. Like any street musician playing by the Metro, he opened the case towards the audience hoping for donations. He was dressed casually—not trying to stand out. But remember, he sold out Boston’s symphony hall a few weeks earlier, and, more locally, the Strathmore music center. He’s the top in his field.

Interestingly (sadly?), very few people noticed. No crowds formed—only a handful of people even stopped for a minute—and he collected about $30 in change (including some pennies) over a 45-minute performance. Gene Weingarten’s main lesson from the experiment was about context. It’s not that we’re all culture-deprived boors who don’t know quality music. It’s just that when we get it in a surprising context, we literally don’t see it or hear it. You can look at if you are a music enthusiast and want to learn some musical instruments. In the article, Weingarten interviews a curator at the National Gallery of Art who argues that if you take a famous modern art painting out of its frame and hang it in a coffee shop, no one will notice that either.

So the author poses an important question:

If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?

Hmmm. I’m sure we’re missing an awful lot. But then again, you can’t catch everything. That’s the whole point of context. There is way too much happening for us to catch it all. We rely on context to predetermine some of the variables, to take the burden off of our radar. Otherwise we’d overload our circuits.

So the question is, are we OVER-relying on context? Perhaps life has become so overwhelming that we are intentionally establishing context (rigidly) in order to limit where we turn on our radar. Maybe we retreat into a world where we move to automatic pilot as much as possible in order to save our precious energy for places that “matter.” We turn on our beautiful music radar ONLY when we are at Strathmore hall—one evening every six to twenty-four months.

The problem with that is that it assumes we can control things. It assumes we can use our intellect to always correctly discern the places that matter from those that don’t. We might be asking too much of ourselves. And I think we’re backing into it. We don’t necessarily realize that we’ve created so much structure to our lives that our radar doesn’t function any more.

I think this happens in organizations too. My disdain for strategic planning is related to this concept. We take solace in the strategic planning process because it allows us to check our “strategic” box and turn off our radar when we’re not in that two-day Board retreat. In terms of leadership, we point up the chain and say “why doesn’t the leadership do a better job?” instead of asking ourselves what our personal leadership challenge is or what WE need to be doing differently. There are opportunities for change, growth, success, etc. in our organizational life that we are probably walking right by, in a comfortable little bubble, as if we were simply walking up the stairs from the metro on the way to the office.


  1. Michelle
    12.04.2007 at 9:23 am

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

  2. 20.04.2007 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for the pointer Michelle. I agree with the author’s points. It’s clear to me that there are multiple factors here, and Weingarten didn’t cover them all.