Gladwell’s Blink And The Art of Thinking About Our Work


I’ve just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. I was a tremendous fan of The Tipping Point, and wanted to see what I could get from this work. For those who aren’t familiar, Blink (subtitled “The Power of Thinking About Thinking) is about how our brains work to know things we aren’t always aware of. Some examples given in the book include art appraisers who can tell if a piece is authentic just by looking, or being able to judge the talent of a musician better when the musician can’t be seen.

When I think about the role of “thin-slicing” in my everyday work, I am immediately drawn to the example of selecting musical artists. Admittedly, this strategy works better when one is familiar with the artists that I’m familiar with. I am reminded of my senior year of college, early on in my tenure as president of the concerts committee. We were offered an avail on a popular artist at the time. I wasn’t sure how well it would do, so I asked around among some friends and was eventually convinced that it was worth the considerable expense it would take to bring the group. However, the concert had a FAR smaller draw than expected. Years later, I know that my gut feeling is usually right on something like that. I might not be able to explain why I feel like one artist will do better than any other, but that first instinct is usually right.

But I would also say that we should exercise this strategy with caution with regard to our students. Why? My theory professor Dr. Barry Hubbard would be proud to say that his class gives me pause about applying the lessons of this book so broadly with our advisees, student staff, and mentees. The majority of the examples given in Gladwell’s book refer to reliable patterns of behavior in adults. But because of the development that (hopefully) goes on in college, the changing identities with which we deal each day, it would be irresponsible to rely on the same assumptions of a student and his or her behavior in his or her first year and his or her final year. In fact, if we are doing our jobs properly, we stand to be dealing with two very different people over the course of that time period. As such, we would have to adjust our “first instinct” about that student and his or her behavior, as the student grew into this new version of him or herself. But regardless of whether or not we find the right way to use this strategy with our students, or with a departmental decision, or even the decision to take a job at an institution, there is a lot of power in something “feeling” right.

We tend to believe that having more information (more student opinions, more statistics, more assessment results) can lead us to the right answer. Sometimes we ask for information to do the proper diligence, back up that feeling with facts or supplemental opinions. But sometimes we ask because we already know.

Do I wish to dismiss the importance of assessment or consulting different constituents in the work that we do? Not remotely. I wish to say, rather, that we should trust ourselves more than we are first inclined to. Think about a student who may not have all the qualifications for a position, or a potential staff member who, despite being different or challenging, has a quality that you see hope for. Follow that gut instinct. Similarly, if something feels wrong, consult with those around you, but trust yourself. You may be right!

How do you see this phenomenon in your work? Have you ever had a moment, a “blink”, where you knew something no one else seemed to?

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