This article by MOI Global instructor Robert Leitz has been excerpted from a letter of iolite Partners, a value-oriented investment firm based near Zurich, Switzerland.

In 2007, a man started to play the violin at a metro station in Washington DC on a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, thousands of people went through the station.

Three minutes went by until somebody noticed there was a musician playing. A middle-aged man slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds — and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw money into the player’s violin case and continued to walk. A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but then looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly, he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother hurried him along, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed. No one applauded, nor did anyone recognize him.

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100. His performance in the metro was a social experiment by the Washington Post about the perception, taste and priorities of people.

If we do not notice one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, what else are we missing? The story tells us that we tend to see only what we expect, and that our perception is heavily driven by social conditioning.

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