Hiding in Plain Sight

Phil SmithOver a career that has spanned four decades so far, concertgoers have routinely paid a lot of money to hear Phil Smith play the trumpet. The long-time principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic retired this summer after 36 years in the orchestra. In his first professional audition, while still a student, he won a place in the Chicago Symphony. While still in his 20s, Phil came to New York following just his second professional audition. According to New Yorker magazine, “For the past thirty-six years, Smith has presided over orchestral trumpet playing, with a resonant, clarion sound and a reputation for never missing a note.” He has been, inarguably, one of the world’s great performers.

Of course, since we are talking about music, rather than my writing about Phil and his influence, you should simply hear him for yourself. Here he is playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Listen to how consistent, clear and exact he is.

And here he is playing an excerpt of a very different piece – the brass chorale from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Listen to that perfectly struck last note just fade away.

Or to switch genres entirely, listen to Phil play his own lovely arrangement of the classic Gershwin tune, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” If it doesn’t melt your heart, I suspect you aren’t listening.

The classical music world is well tuned in to Phil’s greatness. Less well-known is that Smith grew up in a Salvation Army family, playing cornet on street corners and in church bands. Phil was gifted enough to make it into Julliard despite having had no formal training. His father, a Salvation Army cornet soloist, was his only teacher. You can hear Phil play a duet with his father below. Notice that the video has very few views and it provides no indication whatsoever that Phil is now world-famous.

Perhaps surprisingly, Phil never gave up playing with the Army. He still plays with them, often anonymously. As the Associated Press reported, “Philip Smith trumpets for God by the little red kettle, when he can still find the chance. He loves the whole thing: The ‘Sharing is Caring’ sign. The elderly veterans who tell him how Salvation Army volunteers handed out doughnuts during World War II. The young people who stand appreciatively as he hits the high notes in ‘O Holy Night.’

“’You’re terrific,’ one young man told him. ‘You should play music for a living.’”


Sometimes near Christmas Phil would slip out of Avery Fisher Hall after a performance with the Philharmonic, change jackets, and join some Army brass in front of a kettle. He didn’t hear Bravo! there. In that context, people who had just paid a lot of money to applaud his virtuosity would routinely ignore him and his music. It was as if he was hiding in plain sight.

In nearly every context and situation, we routinely hear, see and perceive exactly what we expect. No more and no less. Since concertgoers (or more precisely, concert-leavers) didn’t expect a world-class performer to be playing with the Salvation Army on a street corner for free, they didn’t notice when one was doing just that.

Similarly, the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap, busked for change outside a Washington, D.C. Metro station in 2007, playing some of the masterworks of the classical repertoire on a 1713 Stradivarius for which he is reported to have paid $3.5 million (be sure to read Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize winning piece about this concert and how it came to be).

Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where merely decent seats had gone for $100 a pop. In a concert hall, Bell earns over $1,000 per minute to play before packed houses of adoring fans. But during the three-quarters of an hour that Bell played during rush hour on that January day, one solitary listener recognized Bell. Only seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run – totalling $32.17. After each of the six pieces Bell played was concluded, there was no applause or recognition of any kind. Hundreds upon hundreds of people hurried by, oblivious to the proximate greatness.

Almost nobody saw or heard what was right there and available free of charge. They missed greatness by failing to expect greatness or even to consider that greatness might be lurking unawares.

We all like to think that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to our conclusions. But we don’t. As I have pointed out many times, we like to think that we’re like judges, impartially and painstakingly examining all the possible evidence before making the best, most rational analysis and determination possible. But we aren’t. We’re much more like attorneys looking for any scrap of plausible evidence or argument that we might use to help to support our preconceived notions, truth be damned.

Indeed, we all tend to suffer from confirmation bias and thus reach our conclusions first. Only thereafter do we gather would-be facts, but even then we only do so to support our prior commitments. We then take our carefully pre-sorted “facts” and cram them into our desired narratives, because narratives are crucial to how we make sense of reality. They help us to explain, understand and interpret the world around us. They also give us a frame of reference we can use to remember the concepts we take them to represent. Perhaps most significantly, we inherently prefer narrative to data — often to the detriment of our understanding.

This confirmation bias causes us to gather supposed evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and to interpret it in a biased way. These biases are especially strong with respect to issues and for beliefs we really care about. For example, in reading about gun control, people typically prefer sources and interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their established positions. Confirmation bias helps to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a stronger weighting for data encountered early in an arbitrary series) and illusory correlation (by which people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

Consider the Joshua Bell experiment again. Hundreds of commuters raced past Bell and ignored one of the musical greats of our generation because stopping and paying attention wasn’t part of their expectations and wasn’t in their plans. He may as well not have been there. But every single child who walked past Bell tried to stop and listen and every single time a parent scooted the kid away. Kids have fewer and lesser expectations than we do. Kids have fewer pre-conceived notions than we do. Often times, quite remarkably, kids pay much better attention than we do.

Much truth (not to mention beauty) is all around us, hiding in plain sight, like Phil Smith and Joshua Bell. We miss it because it’s outside our comfort zone. Or it doesn’t comport to the views we already hold. Or it seems to contradict our ideologies. Or it doesn’t come packaged the way we expect or from a source we expect. Or perhaps it simply doesn’t fit with our view of the world (or the economic cycle, or the markets, or politics, or, or, or).

My besetting sin as an investor and a person can seem petty and trivial. It’s that I don’t pay attention very well far too much of the time. But paying sufficient attention is crucial to making sense of the world and the markets and to using that knowledge successfully. If Phil Smith is playing on a street corner near me, I want to hear him. Even more, I want to listen carefully. You should too.


4 thoughts on “Hiding in Plain Sight

  1. Pingback: Hiding in Plain Sight – Robert Seabright – Above the Market | Marty Investor

  2. Pingback: The Decline and Fall of Fund Managers | Prudent Trader

  3. Pingback: Saturday links: financial karma | Abnormal Returns

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