Blink

The trend of nonfiction continues. I have not read or listened to much fiction lately but there is some on the agenda immediately following this book. My wife bought Blink but I rudely grabbed it before she got to read it (I’m dealing with the guilt, thanks for asking). I was in a hurry to read it because I had just finished The Tipping Point by Gladwell and I liked it, so I thought it would be good to follow up quickly with his other book.

Gladwell sets out to explain that “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis” (page 17). He is not advocating hasty decisions and he is not tearing down long, arduous, analytical thought. In general, he is just working this “blink of an eye” angle in an effort to teach us how to manage and use our first impressions despite the general perception that they usually lead to less than desirable outcomes.

Who doesn’t agree that first impressions can be dangerous? It kind of goes along with what mom and dad always warned, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” But, then they would say something like “don’t judge a book by its cover.” How confusing is that? On one hand they advocate looking beneath the surface to uncover true character in others, but when you dye your hair purple before your first job interview, they overrule your personal grooming decisions. “But mom, once they talk to me and understand how smart, caring, and responsible I am, won’t they look past my purple hair and still hire me?” Uh, NO. Mom and dad were smarter than you thought but they just did not have all the data that Gladwell has to convince you that first impressions are both harmful and helpful and that we need to understand more about how our mind works before we can assess whether to listen to our gut or not .

Gladwell digs heavily into a concept he calls “thin-slicing,” or, as he describes it, “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (page 23). There are times, in certain situations, given the right environment, where you can immediately hone in the relevant information and make a sound decision almost instantaneously. This can be an extremely powerful, life saving, and productivity-increasing talent. But, you have to understand when the circumstances lend themselves to this because if they don’t, you are going to do something stupid.

To illustrate what I think he is saying, let me give you an example from my own life. I am passionate about the game of golf. I participate in it, read about it, watch it, discuss it, surf the net for information on it, dream about it, love it, hate it, and am generally consumed by it. This is not necessarily something to be proud of, but it’s true. Ask my friends. Okay, now, I can drive by a golf course, glance at it, and almost immediately discern if it is an excellent course (4 out of 5 stars) or a great course (3.5 out of 5 stars). Furthermore, based on a few snippets of text on the internet I can tell if my group will enjoy playing a golf course that we have never even seen before. When it comes to rating a golf course using standards agreed on by pretty much anybody, I can “thin-slice” with the best of them. Why? Well, because it’s within my “area of passion and experience” as Gladwell puts it. So I can be confident in my abilities to use my first impressions in this matter, be they gleaned from a small sample of text or a split-second observation.

The same cannot be said about my ability to “thin-slice” fine wines. I will falter under the pressure of the waiter hovering over my shoulder while I look at a wine list. If it’s red and has a picture of a horse on it, I’m probably going to like it. So if I do the tasting, there is a good chance that I may choose a poor vintage because of bad weather or something. Or maybe I’ll pick a red wine that has too much oak flavor for the delicate fish that my party has ordered. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I certainly don’t have the palate to tell the waiter to take it back and bring me the 1998 coastal cabernet after that little pour that they do at expensive restaurants. There’s a good chance I’m going to ruin the meal and thereby set the tone for a horrible evening. This could be “thin-slicing” gone bad and I need to recognize that so I can decline the tasting, and let someone more knowledgeable make the call.

These examples are trivial, so please read the book because I am sure I do not do Gladwell justice. He has some very thought provoking examples of how first impressions are harmful in the real world, especially regarding race, gender, and age. He backs the examples up with detailed statistical analyses that read like an econ book. He was touched by a negative experience with first impressions in his own life (see the Acknowledgements) and that set him on the path to writing this book. It is a call to arms for people to say, I don’t know because I have never walked in those shoes so I will attempt to understand my bias and analyze the issue before I act.

But he does not focus only on the harm caused by quick decisions. He has plenty of examples of highly successful snap decisions and this can be educational if you are interested in reading this book to improve your decision-making. I keep seeing this book in the business section but in my opinion it isn’t a business book, per se. I guess there are applications of many of his theories in the areas of management and marketing, but if you’re looking for a how-to on making quick business decisions this book is not the right one for the job. If anything, it proves that there is no universal formula you can adhere to for quick decisions. But if you are an expert, thoroughly trained in the subject, and you build this huge reservoir of experience that results in an intuitive grasp of certain situations, then you probably have the ability to make very important decisions with just a two-second observation. Who knows, if you have achieved this level of expertise, maybe this ability could save someone’s life someday, so be ready to trust yourself.