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Context Is Everything

June 11, 2014

Let me add slightly more bitters. Now what does it taste like?

I’m still not sure. Can’t you give me a hint?

Let me add a couple more drops of bitters and I think you can get it.

The bartender really wanted me to guess what drink he was concocting. My wife and I were sitting in the bar at Robert Redford’s ski resort, Sundance. Neither one of us drinks, and we don’t normally go to bars.

But, we were waiting for our table to be ready in the Tree Room restaurant, and preferred to sit at the bar. It was kind of slow and he offered to create a custom drink for us. I was having a terrible time trying to guess.

One of the fun things about large cities are street musicians. I’ve always enjoyed live performances. Like the cracks and pops that you get from a vinyl record, I enjoy the slight imperfections and rawness of a live performance.

A couple years ago there was a story about a violinist who performed one day in a New York subway station. The violinist was good, but the tune was unfamiliar to most of the people rushing on and off the trains. Several people tossed a few dollars into his violin case, but most people simply ignored him.

The violinist wasn’t just good, he was better than good. In fact, he was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world, playing on a $3.5M violin. He had recently played to a sold out show in Boston. Tickets were hundreds of dollars but hard to come by. The unfamiliar piece he was playing was by Bach and was one of the most technically difficult pieces ever written. Very few people could even attempt it, let alone play it from memory in the middle of a crowded subway station.

So, why didn’t people recognize him? Why did the New York subway riders not appreciate him? Initial reaction to this story was to be horrified at the lack of cultural awareness of the ignorant Americans.

I think that reaction is misguided.

One final example. The great actor Jack Lemmon made a movie decades ago where he played a low level employee in a major corporation. In an early movie version of under cover boss, the elderly owner decides to go to work as a janitor in his own company. He gets invited to a party with and tasked with bringing the wine. He asks his wine steward to retrieve the most expensive bottle of in his extensive wine cellar.

Only twenty four bottles were made sir. You bought twelve and the Royal Family bought the other twelve. The undercover janitor shows up at the party with a bottle of wine that cost more than his coworkers combined annual salary.

Guess what his coworkers thought of the wine

This is awful!

Boy did YOU get taken!

They really saw you coming.

And his coworkers take this nearly priceless bottle of wine and pour it out on the sand.


Why did I not recognize ginger ale? Why did no one recognize a virtuoso in the. New York subway? Why did the pic nic goers not recognize the fantastic wine?


When we lose the context of a situation or a person, it’s hard for us to place that person. This happens in business of course. It’s why people have such a hard time being promoted in their own team. Once someone decides that “You’re just not technical enough,” or “You aren’t really management material,” it’s nearly impossible to overcome that perception.

So, don’t be too quick to dismiss an idea because it comes from the mailroom. Don’t assume that the person working as an administrative assistant doesn’t have the potential to move up.

Oh, and if the bartender offers you a virgin drink made of Sprite and bitters. . .it’s probably ginger ale.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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