Reading “Blink” made me more confident in trusting those instant first impressions. Gladwell put some logic and reason into what I could only describe as instinct. Agree or disagree with him, Gladwell knows how to tell a compelling a story, and it is the stories that grasp his readers, or at the very least, me. I read this book on a coast to coast airplane ride on a December a few years ago. In preparation for reading his latest book, “The Outliers“, which has been sitting on my book shelf from last Xmas wish list, I realized this book never made it into the book posts. So I finally took it off the shelf, dusted it off (it’s just an expression, there is no dust at my house!), and tried to remember what I consumed in the 254-pages.
Not being able to recollect much was a sharp reminder of why I initially started the book blogs, even though I had mixed feelings about this particular book. How often do you wish in frustration you had retained more from books that were full of impact and influence in your life? Much to my dismay, it used to happen to me often, and fill me with regret. I know people generally move on to the next book as they do to the next meal, and perhaps they tuck away the golden nuggets in the depth of their conscious and can access it on a whim. How I envy them! I needed a space to leave a permanent mark of those impressions from my reading, while they were fresh in my mind. I needed to memorize the hundred ways a character or an author weaved their path into my own life’s story and experience. That is why I started blogging about books. But I slightly digress.
Insofar as Blink goes, the most memorable part of this book was the very last chapter, a miracle in the classical music world. The professional musician Abbie Connant, a brilliant musician, played for the role of the main trombone in the audition in Munich. The year was 1980. The audition was set up to remove all prejudice from judging and therefore the musicians were hidden from view while playing their instruments. As soon as the committee heard Abbie’s first notes, they were floored by her performance. They exclaimed, “That’s who we want” and were expecting to fully congratulate a Herr (Mr.) Conant, and certainly not a Frau (Miss) Conant emerging from the curtains. When Abbie stepped out to meet the committee, their jaws dropped. The trombone is masculine, they said. It is the instrument played by military marching bands, not one played by a woman. Why, she certainly cannot be first trombone! The captivation of the blind audition that had mesmerized them was soon forgotten by the unexpected surprise of seeing a woman behind the instrument. She was therefore demoted to second trombone. Gladwell shows us here the true test of those instant impressions, in this case listening to the first few seconds of Conant’s awe-inspiring performance, which is quickly dismissed with the weight of judgment and preconceived notions of what ought to be.
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
I think Gladwell’s main premise in Blink is this: That because we often neither know nor understand the root source of our first impressions, we simply cannot trust them or assign any significance to them. He shows us through examples and case studies that there can be value behind this rapid cognition, and we need to take them seriously as well as take responsibility for some of the snap judgments that we make based on those first impressions. He thus analyzes both the upside and naturally downside of these instantaneous decisions that are made in the first 2-seconds, in the blink of an eye as we come into contact with our world. He warns us against the subconscious prejudice that we are hardly aware of, but one that plays a part in our decisions, and makes us aware of when they can help or hurt our chances of making the most clear decision based the thinnest slice of experience in the situation.
You know what it feels like. It can be a feeling based on no facts, an instinct, a strong emotion that you just cannot explain, a turn in the stomach, a sudden feeling of harmony or an irritating rash when you see someone or something for the very first time. All my life, I have been sharply aware of these instant feelings, and almost always trusted them. They hardly have let me down in hindsight, even as I make my decisions with shaky confidence based on this inexplicable emotion that arises after 2-seconds of meeting someone or seeing something. And yes, I have been wrong too. Knowing when to trust it and when to doubt it has been my question all along.
Gladwell argues it is simply a rational process, thinking that occurs at a very fast pace. Massive data processing is completed in the blink of an eye, and a decision is almost made in our minds. But you can argue that those first two seconds on a quick decision can be based on prejudice, discrimination, preconceived notions, or all goodness. Anything goes based on one’s life experience and upbringing, morals and ethics and beliefs. Decisions in general should not be made after 2 seconds of entering a situation especially weighty decisions. But those first 2 seconds serve a different purpose in every circumstance. Blink sharpens our awareness of those 2 seconds and as Gladwell put it “...truly successfully decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking“. And that balance is key.
I’m afraid that I would probably not recommend Blink as a great read. I still like Gladwell quite a bit, and enjoyed immensely meeting him in San Francisco after a fantastic speech he delivered at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference. And so I will practice what he preaches in Blink, if I am to take away anything at all. First impressions, the book is an entertaining read and brings awareness into our subconscious and our speed thinking as we meet and greet our world. In more depth, it seems like a collection of case studies that are not entirely linked and do not altogether make a very strong point. Overall, I felt a bit spaced out, uncertain about the author’s main points, and slightly regretful to have set higher expectations for the book based on the author.
Nonetheless, enough analysis. Sometimes we like the books. Sometimes we don’t relate. Gladwell is still an accomplished writer to me, and there is no need to make a snap judgment about him based on one book. Perhaps the mood will even strike me to pick up “The Outliers” down the road, and perhaps by then, I will have a blank slate for giving Gladwell another full chance.