A Long Island man sent me an email, making a remarkable claim:
"I have the unique ability to tell what a person does for a living by quickly studying someone's face," he wrote. "I could pinpoint...a pilot, doctor, chemical engineer...just about any career."
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"If you put teachers in a room, I could tell you with stunning accuracy whether they taught English, Math, History...Science, etc.," he continued. "If you put a policeman and a fireman in the same room with just a T-shirt, I could tell you who does what."
The man said he was both a pastor and a career coach, dedicated to helping people with grueling life decisions. So what did I decide? Well, during a recent trip to New York City, I gave him a call and listened to his spiel for more than an hour.
I set aside much of my initial skepticism after he explained that his "gift" was not based upon the Holy Ghost, psychic phenomena, extraterrestrial technology, or anything that would totally strain credulity.
He said he simply had a knack for recognizing subtle facial patterns that, it turns out, are telltale signs of what people do for a living. He claimed an accuracy rate of more than 95%.
Hey, we've all seen a cop who looks just like a cop. So I began pondering a profound question: Does one's face shape one's destiny, or does one's destiny shape one's face?
My inquiring mind wanted to know. So I talked a senior multimedia producer at the Wall Street Journal into assigning me a cameraman. Now, this is a valuable resource that could be dedicated to covering important news. But I decided to deploy it on a magic show.
I stood on the bustling corner of 6th Avenue and 47th Street, outside News Corp. headquarters, sporting my good suit, wielding a "WSJ.com" microphone, and using my on-camera charms to coax passersby into the act.
"Write what you do for a living on this pad," I instructed innocent bystanders. "But don't show it to anyone. Then, this man will study your face, and within a few moments he'll guess what you do. Just by looking at your face!"
I had asked a woman who works at the Journal to walk by and pretend not to know me. I wanted a control subject in the experiment. The man studied her face and swiftly guessed she worked in finance.
"No, I don't work in finance," she said.
"But you work with numbers?" he continued.
"No, I don't work with numbers," she said.
"She works at the Journal," I confessed.
"See, that's finance," the man declared.
"But I don't do anything related to finance," my colleague insisted.
"Well, I'm going to give him that one," I declared. "The Wall Street Journal is synonymous with finance."
I figured my show would only get better from here. Onto the next subject, and the next, and the next.
The man guessed a woman who worked as a beautician was a corporate executive.
He guessed that a man who worked as a public relations professional was an investment banker.
He guessed that a man who worked in information technology was a cop.
"Well, are you in the security end of information technology?" he asked.
No matter how many guesses he got wrong, the man would not accept failure. He wanted to keep going. We went through nearly a dozen subjects. He did not get one right.
After more than an hour of this, my amazingly patient cameraman signaled it was time to cut it off. But the man complained we weren't giving him enough time. He said he needed more subjects. He said he couldn't understand our disbelief.
The man wanted to believe. He wanted us to believe. And as I pointed out that all of his failed guesses were caught on camera, my trusty cameraman made a bee-line for the office.
So I stood there, in the streets of New York City, arguing about an alleged 95% accuracy rate, while the man kept saying he was disappointed that we didn't believe him, and sorry that we couldn't give him more time, and that he was really pretty close on most of his calls.
Like a rube from Denver, I felt sorry for the guy. I still feel sorry for him, which is why I left his name out of a column that is really about what a chump I am.
The man had a glassy bald head, and as he shamelessly defended his performance, one of the gooiest pigeon droppings I have ever seen splattered across his skull. Some of it splashed from his forehead onto my suit jacket.
I looked up in amazement. There was a ledge, about three stories up. Literally, scores of gyrating pigeon tails were hanging over it.
It was only then that reality finally dawned on me: The odds of this guy getting pelted in the head by a pigeon were far greater than the odds of him ever guessing what anyone did for a living.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. He can be reached at 212-416-2617 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on his blog at tellittoal.com.)