There's this experiment I've always wanted to try.

My theory is that people focus a lot less on the quality of advice, information, etc. than on the "quality" of the person who provides it. If Warren Buffett gives you a stock tip, you'll listen; if the same advice comes from the guy who runs your local deli... probably not so much.

So I've always wanted to swap columns with a big name (here's looking at you Richard Branson).

My theory is "Richard's" article would get tons of play, tons of positive comments, tons of likes and shares--untold thousands of people would find it awesome and possibly even life changing. "My" article would be well received, but not spectacularly so.

The quantitative difference would be huge. Even though I actually wrote Richard's article and he wrote mine.

Then we would 'fess up and spark a conversation on the nature of advice. "Would you have liked Jeff's post more if you had known it was Richard's? Would you have liked Richard's less if you had known Jeff wrote it?" "Do we often fail to evaluate the idea separately from the messenger, and in so doing sometimes place too much credence on the actual message and sometimes not enough?"

Sounds like a fun experiment. Unfortunately, I've never managed to talk anyone truly notable into participating.

But it turns out I don't have to, because someone else beat me to it. What he did is fascinating--and says a lot about how we all apply context and framing that filters what we see and hear.

Metro Music

A guy wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap walks into a D.C. Metro station and takes out his violin, leaving the case open on the floor to invite spare change. He plays for 43 minutes while almost 1,100 people walk by. During that time, only seven briefly stopped to listen. 27 "tipped" him for a total of $32.

Everyone else hurried by, many passing within feet.

Sound like what you would expect for a street performer? Probably so... except the violinist was Joshua Bell, the internationally acclaimed virtuoso widely regarded as one of the world's greatest violinists.

Yet some people didn't even notice him at all. (If you're interested, here's the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post article.)

A few days later Joshua packed his Stradivarius and flew off to headline a concert tour in Europe, but he did come back to the states in time to receive the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America.


Context is (Almost) Everything

Like a tiger in a zoo, commuters experienced Joshua outside his natural habitat. Put him on onstage at Carnegie Hall and the opposite would likely occur: even on his worst night an audience would probably still walk away feeling his performance was incredible simply because he's Joshua Bell appearing at Carnegie Hall! How could he not be awesome?

See Joshua in a Metro Station and he's just some guy hanging out next to the subway trying to score a little cash. How could he be awesome?

How could "Richard's" article not be awesome?

How could "my" article be but so awesome?

But He Is Mark Cuban!

Before you say it, I know: Richard Branson is way smarter, way more successful, and definitely has much better hair than me. I'm not implying otherwise. All I am saying is that we all naturally add extra weight to advice we hear from people we admire and respect and we all naturally subtract weight or even disregard advice we hear from people we don't (or simply don't know.)

Totally understandable--and at the same time a huge problem.

Why? Say you run into Mark Cuban in an airport lounge. He asks about your company. He gives you advice.

Within minutes you've decided to pivot, and you've mentally scrapped your entire marketing strategy. You're dead set on buying out your partner. Every word he speaks is forever burned on your brain, and why not? He's Cubetastic! He's Cubalicious! He's forgotten more about startups than you'll ever know!

And maybe Mark is right. Maybe you should pivot, should blow up your marketing plans, and should ditch a longtime partner.

But maybe he's not right. No offense to Mark, but he doesn't know your business or your market or your team. He definitely doesn't know you. He may be the Cubester, but his opinions are based on his background, his experience, and his perspective.

What's right for him may be far from right for you--but you don't think about that because he's Mark Cuban.

And Everyone Else Is Not

In all likelihood Seth Godin doesn't live around the corner. Malcolm Gladwell doesn't hang out at your coffee shop. Richard Branson doesn't kite surf on a nearby lake. (Although it would be pretty cool if he did.)

Most of the people you meet are not recognized as thought leaders and nor are they wildly successful. So you won't automatically hang on their every word.

But you should always listen. Just as you should never reflexively accept a message because you admire the messenger, nor should you reflexively discount a message because you discount the messenger.

Opinions, advice, information: it's all data, and the more data we have, the better.

So strip away the framing you apply to the source. Strip away the setting or environment. Consider the advice, the information, or the opinion based solely on its merits. Sure, the quality of the source matters, but ultimately the quality of the information--and its relevance to your unique situation--matters a lot more.

The more you listen, and the more people you are willing to listen to, the more data you will have at your disposal to make smart decisions.

You don't have to agree, but you should always try to listen.