Think Before You “Blink”

In last year’s best-seller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell points out that our “adaptive unconscious” is constantly making assessments about people and situations in just a matter of seconds.

He argues that these snap judgments are not just good, but extraordinary. For example, he cites a study showing that college students can watch short film clips of professors lecturing and rate them as accurately as students who spend an entire term with them, even when the clips are only two seconds long. (Two seconds!)

This is quirky and interesting, but I’m skeptical. Much of my own experience has rebutted this line of thinking.

How many times have you made a new acquaintance, thought you knew him, and then one day discovered he was not the person you thought he was? (Sometimes better, sometimes worse.) How many times have you been badgered, cajoled, or (okay) dragged to an event that turned out to be a lot of fun?

In making snap judgments, we often shortchange our friends, our family, our co-workers, even ourselves. We miss opportunities for new experiences and relationships. And, more often than not, we are almost completely unaware of it.

Investment legend John Templeton once wrote, “A successful life depends less on how long you live than on how much you can pack into the time you have. If you can find a way to make every day an adventure – even if it’s only a matter of walking down an unfamiliar street or ordering an untried cut of meat – you will find that your life becomes more productive, richer, and more interesting. You also become more interesting to others.”

Gladwell says that we’re much more apt to “think without thinking.” But the results of such thinking are biases that are not always on target…

When I first met my pal Rob Fix at work more than two decades ago, I had two overwhelming impressions. One, he talked too much, and, two, he was a bit of a kook. For several weeks, I avoided him like the IRS.

Then, at a party at a friend’s house, I noticed a crowd of people in the backyard. They were gathered around Rob, who had brought over his telescope and was busy showing everyone the moon, the planets, the Orion Nebula, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

“How far is it to the moon, anyway?” asked a young woman who was peering into the telescope.

“Now let me see,” said Rob, thinking out loud. “I just drove it the other day…”

“Hey,” I remember thinking to myself, “this guy isn’t so bad. He’s actually pretty funny.”

Of course, now that I’ve known Rob for 26 years I realize that my first impression of him was totally off base. He’s not a guy who talks too much and is a bit of a kook. He’s a guy who talks way too much and is the biggest kook I’ve ever met. He is, in fact, the world’s most lovable kook. Perhaps that’s why he was the best man at my wedding.

Our prejudgments can mislead us…

A friend declines tickets to a jazz concert because he knows he wouldn’t like it. My daughter Hannah turns up her nose at every food she doesn’t recognize. We pass on taking a weekend trip because we imagine “It won’t be worth it.”

Each day, we face making dozens of small decisions. For expediency, if nothing else, we lapse into the safe, the familiar, the unthinking – denying ourselves the pleasure of a new discovery.

Just ask Walker Percy. In his Foreword to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, he describes how the book came to his attention:

“While I was a teacher at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown to me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to get into my class. It was that her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it was a great novel, she said.

“Over the years I have become very good at getting out of things I don’t want to do. And if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: To deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read a manuscript that she said was great, and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.

“But the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained – that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

“In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was this good…”

Oh, it’s good all right. Walker Percy’s discovery went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and has since sold more than two million copies. The novel – which features the hilarious misadventures of slob extraordinaire Ignatius Reilly – is now regarded as a comic masterpiece.

Let’s be grateful that Percy didn’t follow his intuition, his instant assessment, his inner “blink.” And just maybe we should keep a close eye on our own, too.

Life really is full of surprises. But “thinking without thinking” may not be the best way to discover them.

[Ed. Note: Relying solely on your snap judgments could be keeping you from taking advantage of powerful opportunities. One of the most common snap judgments we see at ETR is people who think, “No way. An Internet business isn’t right for me.” The truth is, practically anyone can start his or her own Internet business – and make it profitable. For a step-by-step guide to doing just that, click here.]

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Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club. A Wall Street veteran, he has over 20 years experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer and portfolio manager. Under his direction, The Oxford Club’s portfolios have beaten the Wilshire 5000 Index by a margin of more than 3-to-1. The Oxford Club Communiqué, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked fifth in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past 10 years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest. Mr. Green has written for Louis Rukeyser and several other leading financial publications. He has been featured on The O’Reilly Factor, and has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, C-SPAN and CNBC among others. He currently writes and directs the twice-weekly Oxford Insight e-letter and three short-term trading services: The Momentum Alert, The Insider Alert and The New Frontier Trader, as well as the editor of "Spiritual Wealth," a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life. Mr. Green is also the author of two bestsellers “The Gone Fishin’ Portfolio” and “The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters.”