Do Blink!

July 12, 2005 03:30 by keithkaragan

"It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good..."

Over the years I've recognized that in certain areas I can (or do) almost immediately sum up the situation and form a conclusion without trying, or better put  - without conscious analysis. Most of the time I've chalked this up to experience with the subject manner - but in others I hadn't, and at times have gotten burned for not trusting that instinct. It's easy to trust that gut feeling in areas where I've developed depth, but if I start to analyze too deeply the decision on areas where I don't feel I have this subject matter expertise (so to speak) I'm prone to second guessing my choice (or at least in some cases, less now than before).
So when I heard Gladwell talk about the book in a recording from the South by South-West conference (via IT Conversations), the premise of the book was really intriguing for me to possibly get a better understanding of this process of rapid cognition. The outcome was a better understanding, but also a disturbing feeling about the power of subconscious bias that may be inflicted (or elevated) by outside forces.
In practical application, I have two areas that I have full trust of this ability and where I've always had a very difficult time inter-operating with others in the execution of the underlying tasks where this action was being used - Hiring and Music.
In hiring, I've worked in responsible positions in a number of companies in several fields. Over my employment (I can't really call it a career, or perhaps I don't want to) I've probably interviewed 1,000 people or more and hired over 150-200 of them (or recommended their hiring). People come and go for a myriad of reasons, but firing  a person is an untidy and rather rare occurrence. Of these folks, there was probably three that were truly bad hires that I misjudged. I say this because in nearly all of these cases highly technical analysis or deep testing was neither performed or necessary to size up the individual's capability to perform the job. In fact I knew in the first three minutes (hmmm ... based on blink, it may have been the first 10 seconds) if the person was honest, capable, and had the appropriate disposition for the position. I've butted heads with business partners, employers, and co-workers over how technical or deep an interview needs to be. Many of these folks (very qualified and deep folks in their own right) either did not have the ability to size up the candidate, or couldn't trust their ability to do so. Many had very rigorous and elaborate processes that they would use to examine the situation, and would take on a lot of overhead in order to make the right choice - and in many more of the cases were not satisfied with the outcome.
I've gotten to a place in my life where when I need to be the interviewed candidate, the process that is presented to me becomes one of the ways I size up the client or company in what the experience will be like working with them, and how I need to adapt my demeanor and report with them to make them comfortable with my capabilities and work ethic. In the age of 'work is life' for a great many people it really is surprising that the people that are in the business of hiring (HR folks) are often not very astute in evaluating potential candidates for positions. I would think that people with a keen sense of people would gravitate to these kinds of positions, and be successful and richly rewarded for their skills. Think of it as 'inside sales' - making a 'good' hire saves tons of expense for a company, not only in the the reduction of interviewing overhead, but in the reduction of lost investment for employees that are let go or leave before significantly contributing to the firm.I'm very skeptical of the practices that are the myths of hiring at Microsoft and Goggle (for example). What reduction in attrition do these practices really result in? (if any) What are the hidden costs? Do these practices actually self-perpetuate as a hazing, rite, or fraternity model? I think they do, based on what I've seen.
In music I've been exploring this concept of rapid cognition for a while now. When I meet with other players they often ask what songs I know, and frequently I'll answer that I don't know any songs. The fact is that I do know lots of songs, I've played music for 25  years or so. I'm not lying though - I've not prepared any songs to play and wouldn't be able to recall them readily in the situation without preparation. The act of not preparing them is intentional though. I don't want to play music to exercise my ability to recall the structures and particulars of one song or another, I play music to experience the creative energy that flows between musicians during the improvisation of playing off each other.
I've explained this to other musicians from time to time as a sort of Jazz mentality, and most didn't understand what I was going for, or were alienated by the premise of Jazz when they play some other style - and Jazz is considered 'hard' by most non-Jazz players. What I meant though was the spirit of Jazz, not the specifics of Jazz. So, by clearing the slate of old and reliable cliché tunes we could embark on an adventure (for better or worse) that would be more rewarding - that is if the other players are after a similar satisfaction from playing music.
I took this to another level last year by starting to use alternate guitar tuning, and other stringed instruments in my music. Then adding more percussion. I didn't study the tunings to re-learn the chords and scales I know in standard tuning. I didn't get deep on the other instruments to develop traditional skills on them. I did get familiar with the specifics of operating in each environment, and developing a comfort to be able to create sound on each, and understand what notes lay where on the instrument in order to allow music to happen. In percussion, I'm self-studying the tabla as a gateway to musicality in percussive instruments, and develop a vocabulary and base ability to perform on other percussive instruments. This process has been really satisfying, and very interesting to me as I see where these practices take the music I make.
When I was able to apply this to a situation that was more than solo (with another live person) I was fortunate enough to be able to find a person open to the idea. I don't know if his motives are the same, or that all of what I'm talking about makes sense to him - but he is willing to give it a spin. In the dozen or so times we've collaborated we've started with a theme (sometimes just a tuning - that we were both inexperienced and uneducated in) and were able to play music on that theme that was energetic and interesting (at least to us) for very extended periods. I want to see this expand to a trio, quartet, etc, -  just to see (or hear) the results over time as the group assimilates to the improvisational or chaotic manner of this realm of making music. It's difficult to find these people, and I'm going to need to employ rapid cognition not only in the execution of the art, but in the acquisition of the people to make the art. Up to know I've tried to shoehorn traditional players into this medium, and that hasn't worked. With the musician I'm working with now, I just got a feeling that he would be receptive - and he was (is). So in essence this blink mentality comes into play at two levels in this case.
So, anyway, if you find this type of stuff interesting you'll probably enjoy blink from cover to cover. A hopeful outcome of this book is that Gladwell's vocabulary can become a common vocabulary for discussion and better understanding of the decision making process.
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