BLINK: DECISION-MAKING ACCELERATOR FOR A BETTER LIVING
I. What is BLINK? BLINK is many things. It is a book by Malcolm Gladwell (the author of The Tipping Point). It is the description of a decision-making process that combines awareness, research, a high-speed brain and knowledge. This essay refers to these four points. BLINK is also the word that describes an instant (a two-second period of time) in which one becomes aware of a thought that implies a decision. Mainly, for me, BLINK is the one change in my life that will clearly save me years of time in my life in decision-making processes. This is one of those things I have learned that I consider so good that I want to share it with everyone.
II. What does the book say? The book is an academic research, with footnotes and endnotes the way academic papers do, documenting everything they say. This increases dramatically the reliability of the things that are said that are true. Fortunately, what is most important about it is not the book itself, but the practical implications it may have. So, my idea is not to share the contents of the book. You can read the book if you want to know more about it. I will explain the process that I created after reading the book and relating to the book’s contents.
To say a bit more about the book, it is a masterpiece. It is written with much care and dedication, with endless hours of research, of very delicate research. It is delicious to read because of how marvelous every page turns out to be, regardless of how boring the topic we thought it might be. It is also a page-turner. You want to get to the end the moment you begin. In my experience, I reached the end of the book but the mentality and knowledge and the results of reading it are still on going. I would say BLINK is the one book that has changed my way of thinking on my list of Top 10 mind-changing books of the last three years.
III. How does BLINK work? The mind receives a vast number of impulses collected by the senses of sight, hearing, speech, taste and smell. Apart from these, there are other self-generated impulses in the brain: our thoughts. Most of them are triggered, or at least strongly influenced by our emotions. When we see cow, we immediately project that cow to our emotional library to match it with something we already know and remember, see what it feels like, and decide which attitude to take from then on. This entire process of developing an attitude about something takes two seconds –at the most – from the moment you are in presence of that “thing” until the time you make your decision. Two seconds. Finally something you can do several times while you hold your breath. You can do it while you sleep, while you play cards, while you exercise. Actually, the ideal of BLINK is that you train yourself to do it so often that you train your mind until it becomes a habit. All it takes is a little bit of knowledge, some degree of self-awareness and a little bit of self-discipline.
a. Knowledge: as I mentioned before, this process starts by identifying a moment in life and become aware of it. The moments will come to you. You don’t have to go after them. For example, when you know your favorite team is playing a very exciting match tonight, there are times during the day when you think: “shite, what if my team loses?” The first two seconds after you ask the question, as long as you remain focused on searching for an answer, will become sufficient information you need to get the process started. Remember that the process we are aiming for is how to improve our decision-making process specifically regarding speed, but not only. It also has to do with approximation of success through the process, and the simplification of something that human beings have been historically so ineffective at doing: making decisions. And if you still feel you have been good enough at it, why not try to improve it even more, reducing the time invested in making decisions to a few seconds a day?
b. Self-awareness: BLINK is not possible if there is no capability to stop at that very instant to take control over the process itself, and not let emotions run freely, drifting the focus of concentration away from the decision-making process. It is not easy, but it is easy to learn. You have to program your mind to this. First, close your eyes and remember the first memory you remember about today. Freeze the film and focus on that picture. You see a picture, which is a summary of an event or a series of events that were taking place simultaneously in your life. Have you ever been traveling and had a picture taken of yourself? How much do you remember from that instant? You remember that big plaza. It was a park and there was a main entrance where one had to pay to get in. From the outside it looked spectacular. Certainly not something one sees on a daily basis back home. It was simply breathtaking. Also, you remember if you were having money problems, if you were hungry or stuffed or with diarrhea or if you had not slept much or if you had been kissing the person taking the picture the night before. You also remember the weather, rainy, foggy, hot, cold; you remember the noise, where you bought those shoes, who’s birthday it was and you forgot to call that day; or tried and didn’t manage.
All this collection of memories comes from a picture. Well, your mind also stores pictures. The difference is that, your mind has so much more “memory” than a camera that it stores entire videos, thousands and thousands of them, so you don’t have to remember what a picture reminds you of, but you can actually see the entire video, as long as you want, of all the details that relate to this event you are remembering.
Upon remembering this, one reaches a point in the video where the video reaches its end (which you also remember) and you give it a positive or negative value. Why? Because it is a human characteristic to value-base our events and circumstances so we can conduct ourselves through the path of what we consider “good”.
So, one can BLINK and in two seconds know if a cow makes you feel good or bad. Perhaps not everything is as easy as a cow if you have seen many all your life. You can already say that you like cows. Period. Or that you don’t, and you don’t question it anymore. [Should you? That’s a different topic that can also help in decision-making process improvement, mainly regarding quality of the decisions made.]
The importance about self-awareness, in my opinion, has more to do with taking control over the process than becoming introspective. One area in which self-awareness is fundamental is in conflict analysis. We all have conflicts every day, small ones, like what shirt to wear, and big ones, like having a car accident. No matter how big or small our conflicts are, it is difficult for us to become aware of them. Remember denial stage: first thing we do is pretend and believe there is no conflict. So, once we identify the conflict, we are one step closer to its solution than when we still believed there was none.
Once you have identified a conflict or a situation that is bringing you stress, you are setting yourself in the line of BLINKing to solve it. How? The moment you identify a conflict, you must project it into the future. How bad can this go? What is the worst-case scenario (WCS)? Your brain has the capability to “show” you this WCS in two seconds. Then, your brain will process the event and trigger emotions in you. You could let yourself go with those emotions of WCS and feel “bad”, frustrated, depressed, scared, worried. Or you can stop after that BLINK, press pause before the feelings go rampant around your system, and think about your best-case scenario (BCS). Your BCS will also trigger emotions that will most likely be associated with “good”, comfortable, positive, enjoyable. Still, don’t let them take you away from this decision-making process you are in. Remember you are making decisions, so you can’t waste valuable time in your life feeling emotions about a future that DOES NOT EXIST (WCS and BCS are a product of your imagination only; those events you BLINKed do not exist in reality).
Then, once you have identified WCS and BCS you can decide which way to go. It could very well be that your WCS is not so bad, so you don’t fear much going the wrong way. Or it could be that your BCS is not so good, so it is not worth the effort going in that direction. The important thing is that you already felt, if only for an instant, what it feels like to be in that WCS or BCS so you can make decisions right now to avoid or approach those scenarios.
c. self-discipline: it is very important to develop the strength to be able to stop emotions when they start running wild after picturing a WCS or a BCS. The way you train your mind to do this is the exact same way you train your mind or your body to do everything: through practice. Try it out whenever you feel happy or sad about the future. Suppose, for example, that you have a sentimental partner that lives in a different country than you do. Imagine you meet him/her one day and ask him/her if s/he thinks the two of you are going to meet again. Imagine your partner responds “I don’t know”. You feel very sad because you really wanted to see him/her again, and s/he doesn’t know if you two are going to meet again (which is in fact true, because no one knows anything about the future). Still, you make a big drama in your head (far longer than the two seconds you need) and you let your emotions run wild, thinking how much you are going to miss your partner, and you end up crying out of the frustration of losing him/her.
Now, suppose after having this episode of sadness, four years later you end up marrying this partner, and you live happily ever after. Was it worth all the suffering of that day you cried because you didn’t know if you would see him/her again? Not really. Especially if you think you were able then to picture a BCS (marrying your partner) and considering the possibility that it could eventually happen in the future. The idea is not to create false expectations or illusions, but to think about the WCS and the BCS. If you cried because your partner said there was no certainty you two would meet again in the future, you pictured your WCS but failed to do the same with your BCS. Four years later, this failure proves that if you would have BLINKed your BCS you could have avoided all that unnecessary suffering.
This is very important, because the more self-discipline you have, the faster and easier it will be for you to stop a BLINK after two seconds to use it as valuable information to make a decision. If you let your emotions run wild, controlling them later will be more difficult than after a short two seconds.
IV. Making decisions: whenever we make a decision, we are choosing from a universe of options (at least two, but in many cases an unlimited amount), which means we are basically taking one and leaving all the rest behind. That’s how the world works. Every time we buy a pair of shoes, we are not choosing to buy dozens of other pairs that are sitting on the same rack as the one you chose. How did you choose them?
When making decisions, we choose what we think is best according to our knowledge, to our thoughts, our feelings, our wishes. Sometimes, even when we know everything about something and we think it will be the best and we have the most positive feelings about it and we wish for it intensely, we might make a decision and not succeed at it. This failure has to do with how the decision adapts to your reality. The shoes you bought might not be as good as you thought they were going to be. You might have to cancel the trip you were going to make for your vacation even though you had already paid tickets and hotels. The future is unexpected, so no matter how well we plan a decision, it might turn out to be not as “good” as we expected it to be.
So, when making decisions we always have to remember that they are not permanent states, but temporary. Every decision you make is temporary, as long as its consequences can be reversed along the way. For example, jumping off a plane without a parachute is a decision that most likely may not be reversed. But choosing a professional career or a spouse or a car, have a higher degree of reversibility.
Then, you could make a decision without really thinking much about the future and it could result in a very good decision. For example, suppose you have the opportunity to present an exam to become an official translator for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You don’t really want to do it, you don’t see or understand the purpose, but in the long run, ten years down the road, you can look back at the benefits and think everything you wouldn’t have had if you wouldn’t have made that decision.
From these two last thoughts we conclude that no matter how well or unwell you prepare a scenario for making a decision, the result can still be unexpectedly good or unexpectedly bad for you. This does not mean that life is “a box of chocolates”, as Forrest Gump used to say (“you never know what you are going to get”). There are many ways of influencing your circumstances, through your decision-making processes, through your attitude, to conduct your life on the path you designed for yourself.
What BLINK suggests is that no matter how much time you invest in making decisions, they can still come out to be very bad, so why not learn how to invest only two seconds per decision so you at least don’t lose so much time in the process, and then concentrate on adjusting the circumstances, or better, your attitude towards your circumstances.
V. The origin of fear: one of the most important things to consider about life is the origin of fear. One cannot understand what one does not know. The biggest problem with fear is that we ignore its origins. The origin of fear is a BLINK where we fail to take control over the process and, especially, over the emotions. This BLINK of fear is an instant, two seconds, during which one projects into the future an event or a circumstance that has happened to you or to someone else something that you would dislike experiencing. So, if a snake bit a neighbor and you saw how his leg became after the bite, you BLINK for two seconds, see the WCS, and you make that WCS a reality in your future. But the process goes so out of hand, emotionally, that you start fearing snakes, even though you normally don’t see them and you normally don’t hear of many people being bit by snakes around the places you normally visit. Still, you make a BLINK a reality.
The emotions of this kind of BLINK are so powerful, so out of control, that the fear takes control over you, to the point of physical impact: you cry, you yell, you shiver, you ask for help. Do you remember when you were a child and had nightmares that you called your parents to come in your rescue? What was the origin of that fear? You had a dream, probably a projection of something you heard or saw or created out of your imagination, then you woke up and shifted that picture into reality. Then, in those two first seconds, instead of taking control of the process, we give in to the emotions that start running wild to the point that we cry and we yell for help, even though that vision does not exist in reality.
Then, the process of BLINKing is very useful to overcome fear. First, choose something you fear. For example, flying on an airplane. I am afraid because I would not want my plane to crash into a building and die. That event that I saw became a projection from outside of myself into my personal future. So, when I get on a plane, I think I am going to crash into a building. But this fear exists only because I saw that happening. If I didn’t, most likely that wouldn’t be my fear. Still, I can BLINK for two seconds and realize that the origin of this fear comes from the outside and from the past. None has a direct relationship on me, except if I allow this to happen. Then, I can change my attitude after those two seconds and understand that the odds of crashing into a building while flying on a plane are so small that we can almost say “that will never happen to me”. Fear, then, is eliminated, uprooted where it is born, in our minds. We uproot it taking away the structure that holds fear, which is fantasy, imagination, past and outside world.
November 23, 2005