Assumptions


In 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra put up a screen during musician auditions to make them “blind”. They had been hiring more men than women and were trying to figure out if they were biased in their hiring. Still, the audition results skewed towards men. Why?


There’s a bar my wife and I like to visit near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf called The Buena Vista. They serve a delicious Irish Coffee. Even more memorable is Larry Nolan one of their frequent bartenders. If you go there during the week, sit at the bar. You might get a special chance to see Larry perform magic while you enjoy your coffee.

A few weeks ago my wife, three year old, and I travelled to the Bay Area. My sister-in-law just had surgery and we went to help with chores and recovery. Things like driving the kids to school, taking her to appointments, etc. We spent a lot of time visiting their neighborhood and local spots, so didn’t even make it into San Francisco to visit our favorite bar.

So it was a nice surprise to see a Buena Vista at the airport on our way back home. It wasn’t the same atmosphere of course, but at least we could get a tiny taste of our favorite San Francisco-esque thing.

When our waitress came by though, she looked grumpy we were there. Immediately I thought she wouldn’t be a very good waitress. We asked if they had chocolate milk, our 3 year olds favorite drink. She answered curtly with a flat, “No.” She wasn’t any friendlier while we placed the rest of the order. Great. Not only we do we not get to see Larry, but this waitress is terrible.

Minutes later the waitress came back with our Irish Coffees. But she had another drink. A giant bottle of Chocolate Milk. She said she went next door to the adjacent store because she remembered they sold chocolate milk.

What an incredible move. Blew me away. Very few people would go to that length to make their customers happy. My daughter was thrilled.

Maybe our waitress was just having a bad day. Or maybe that’s just how she is — not a lot of smiles or cheery conversation. But I took all those reads and turned them into an assumption that she was a poor waitress and didn’t care about serving us.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.


Of course men aren’t better musicians than women. So what was going on at these auditions?

The Boston Symphony Orchestra kept exploring how to make their auditions more blind. They asked musicians to take off their shoes before walking across the stage to their audition spot.

Bingo. The sound of the musicians shoes were giving away their gender. Audition results went to almost 50/50 men/women.


I had a chance to catch up with a friend of mine last week, Kurt Mackey. Today he runs Fly.io. At his previous company he instituted blind interviews. The system allowed for interview screening questions that involved code, but hid details about who the interviewees were. And the results were fantastic.

But it’s not just hiring. Bias and poor assumptions creep into everything we do. Look how wrong I was about something as trivial as ordering food at a restaurant. The whole experience humbled me in my ability to read people and showed me how poor some of my knee jerk assumptions are. It’s a huge reminder how much work we need to do to rid ourselves of biases.

I left that waitress a big tip.

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