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Don’t blink: Thinking differently means having second thoughts

Don’t blink! Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful book Blink on what he calls “rapid cognition” is not wrong, just easily misinterpreted. It would seem to tell people to go with their first “gut” response to something.

But your first response to new information, an issue, or an idea may be too limited, too narrow, and incomplete. The problem is, in your busy life, especially your work life, you may not have time for reflection, or may have lost the habit of letting things steep in your mind. Gladwell doesn’t argue that the “Blink” response is always right, or always useful, only that it’s occasionally, and in specific situations, very powerful. I believe in exploring the future, we need to have second thoughts.

The blink response gives awfully little chance for further intuition to emerge. In our quick-paced world and under pressure for action, most of us are likely to have an inside-the-box response to a problem, and to offer a conventional response or a narrowly-pitched one. Unless you have the mental ability and habit to always think about things differently, you can come up short on breakthrough ideas.

An example. A member of a school committee I serve on posed a question about the school’s annual Field Day. What should the school and parent volunteers do about drinking water for the children, since we have realized the waste problem with plastic water bottles? She wanted to explore having big water coolers and cups for the children to use, instead of buying bottled water. Then the problem was the waste cups. Should we use compostable cups? Recycled-content cups?

No doubt because of my decade of work on the future of packaging, my first response to this question was a technical one. Biodegradable cups are on the market, and we could use them, but we don’t have a composting outlet for collected used cups, and our city incinerates its trash. Therefore, we would need a composting system set up. But this is impractical for now at our school’s scale of need and ability to manage. So we had either no solution, or would best just use plastic bottles and be sure all of them got collected for recycling.

Those were first thoughts. They are normally inside-the-box thoughts, which often have a technical flavor. This is just about tweaking the system as it exists. And it also reflects our routine tendency to respond to the question put before us, as it has been framed for us, and not look under the surface for other ways to think about the situation.

When I let my second thoughts emerge, having given the problem time to sit in my mind, it was possible to move from thinking “what containers should we use: cups or bottles?” and “what kind of cups?,” to “what about no containers at all?”. The solution I proposed is that we get or make portable water fountains that connect to fresh water faucets via garden hoses. There will be no waste. By replacing the Field Day question: “What will the children drink their water from?” with the question: “How will the children get water?” it’s possible to move to a better response. Second thoughts need their chance to emerge.

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