Missing Beauty

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” – Confucius

I saw something posted on social media the other day. At first, I questioned the veracity of the story. So, I looked it up on Snopes.com and, lo and behold, it was true.

“Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in 2007 enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event ‘as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?’

So, on 12 January 2007, about a thousand morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces (two of which were by Bach) during that span on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million).

Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where fairly good seats went for $100. But on this day, he collected just $32.17 for his efforts, contributed by a mere 27 of 1,097 passing travelers. Only seven people stopped to listen, and just one of them recognized the performer.

Context, perception and priorities.

So often we miss things because they are not in the Context we expect. Banksy, one of the artists I really enjoy, made a name for himself in street art that often put a political or social message into a familiar image that was out of context. As his art gained notoriety it got recognized by more people, but initially his best pieces were overlooked as just another tag or some graffiti.

Our brains use context to process incoming signals more efficiently. The surrounding data helps us rule out many potential interpretations, so we have less comparative analysis to do. This is very helpful much of the time, but in some cases, it prevents us from seeing something for what it is because of what it is surrounded by or associated with. So, we miss a world class violinist in the subway when we would value him very highly in a symphony hall concert.

Perception is closely linked to belief. We have pre-set beliefs about everything. If what we see or hear contradicts what we believe, our perception about it is different than if it agrees with our beliefs. When a person is doing something we believe to be wrong we often perceive that person as “bad”. This is also manifested as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. We display this bias when we gather or remember information selectively, or when we interpret it in a biased way. The more emotionally charged the thing is and the more deeply held the belief, the stronger the bias.

Our perception and the bias we bring to each situation can protect us from easily changing our beliefs or losing focus, which is good. However, we are unconsciously weighing the cost of being wrong, rather than approaching everything in a neutral scientific way, which is not so good. Objective evaluation takes more time and energy, and has risk associated with it. However, when we oversimplify things, we lose out on truly understanding the world around us. So, we devalue someone playing in a subway where we believe only beggars and homeless people would play.

Our Priorities also shift what we notice and how we value things. “Stop and smell the roses” is a saying for a reason. When we are in a hurry to get somewhere, literally or in mental and emotional terms, we pass things by with little or no notice. If getting where we are going is the priority, we subordinate everything else in favor of accomplishing the goal. What we prioritize controls what we notice.

Shifting our priorities can help us overcome both the context and our perception of people, places and things. We can choose to see, to notice, what is around us. If our priority is the journey rather than the destination, people rather than things and experience rather than acquisition, we can open up the world around us and find that there is beauty everywhere. We can even stop, regardless of the busy nature of our lives, to listen to a world renown violinist play some of the most famous pieces of all time on a priceless violin in a subway.