Although I read Malcom Gladwell’s piece on the nature of choking in sports, I had not read his wildly popular first book, “The Tipping Point,” when I picked up his second effort, “Blink.” I didn’t get too far into “Blink” before I understood why Gladwell is so well-liked; he’s a gifted writer, with the rare ability to make complicated ideas approachable to the average reader. His prose is conversational and lively, his enthusiasm contageous. “Blink” examines when we should and should not trust our initial reactions. As Gladwell writes in the introduction:
“Blink” is concerned with the very smallest components of our everday lives–the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. When it comes to the task of understanding ourselves and the world, I think we pay too much attention to…grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments. But what would happen if we took our instincts seriously? What if we stopped scanning the horizon with our binoculars and began instead examining our own decision making and behavior through the most powerful of microscopes? I think that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews ar conducted, and on and on. And if we were to combine all of those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world.
Gladwell has been criticized for being a populist and watering-down sophisticated ideas, but I think his greatest strength is engaging his readers and stimulating thought and conversation. At least that’s what “Blink” did for me. It just got my mind racing, making connections between improvisational acting and basketball*, casting actors in a movie and the dynamics of personal relationships. I loved it. I don’t know if it’s a perfect book, but it’s a great read, and it has served as a catalyst for lots of great conversation.
I wrote Gladwell, told him that I appreciate his book, and shared a story about how changes in the process of film editing relate to decision-making. I won’t lie, I also was just dying to ask him if he thought the Yankee playoff collapse last fall could be considered choking. He wrote back, told me he was a huge fan of “Moneyball,” and that he didn’t think the Yankees had choked. In fact, he suggested that baseball is not a sport that lends itself to choking in a team sense like football or basketball do. If Bernie Williams is slumping that won’t necessarily impact how Derek Jeter performs. (Individual situations like what happened to Steve Blass or Chuck Knoblauch are different.)
I thought it would be fun to ask Gladwell some questions as he’s a big sports fan. However, with his book tour in full swing, he’s simply too busy to sit down to do the kind of extensive interview I usually like to do here. So at the risk of being flip, here’s six quick questions I recently asked Gladwell (for a longer conversation with him, check out Rob Neyer’s 2002 interview). I figure it’s best to be somewhat timely, instead of holding off for months. I hope it encourages you to consider reading “Blink.” When things calm down some for Gladwell, I’d like to continue talking with him about sports, so if you’ve got any questions you’d like me to ask, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
BB: How did you come to write “Blink” and what is it about? Was it something that you had been mulling over for a long time?
MG: Blink is a book about what happens in the first seconds of any encounter. When you see someone for the first time, or hear a song for the first time, or have to make a decision in a blink of an eye, what happens? I got interested in the subject, weirdly enough, when I grew my hair out. I used to have short, respectable hair. Now I have a fairly wild afro, and the minute my hair changed my life changed as well. I started getting stopped by cops, and getting speeding tickets, and pulled out of airport security lines. Something was happening in that instant when people laid eyes on me that fundamentally changed the way I was perceived and treated by the world, and I wanted to understand what it was.
BB: You’ve got such an elastic mind, illustrating an intellectual concept with a wide variety of examples, from car salesman to food testers to scientists to musicians and improvisational actors. What draws you to using such an eclectic group of characters?
MG: Iím always interested in making the ideas Iím writing about seem relevant, and the best way to do that, I think, is to look for as many different manifestations of that idea as possible. So if I can explain something about what happened during the Diallo shooting by talking about autism (as I do in Blink) I think it helps to make the ideas seem more real.
BB: Youíve obviously got a knack for seeing things as others donít. Where does that come from? Did you grow up reading a particular writer or writers who did the same thing?
MG: I’m not sure where that comes from. It might be that Iím very accustomed to being an outsider. I’m the immigrant son of immigrant parents. I’m bi-racial. I’m left-handed. I’m only person to have grown up in Canada who neither skates nor swims. I suppose if you were to put all that together, you’d come up with the psychological portrait of someone who sees the world through a slightly different lens than others.