Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and Jocko Willink: The Bigger Picture in Combat.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he has three goals for the reader.

First, he wants to convince you that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Gladwell offers a caveat, though. “Our unconscious is a powerful force. But it’s fallible,” he writes. “It can be thrown off, distracted, and disabled. Out instinctive reactions often have to compete with all kinds of other interests and emotions and sentiments.”

Gladwell’s second aim is to answer the question left by his caveat to the first: When do we trust our instincts and when should we not? Through training and exposure to scenarios where our brains go haywire, we can learn to recognize when we go with our gut or take a different route.

The last goal of the book is to “convince you that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.” The book is filled with stories about individuals who learned to manage their unconscious reactions. Gladwell writes, “The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves.”

Gladwell believes that when we look at our instincts, decision-making processes, and behaviors under the microscope, we can make a better world.

After reading the book, it sat on my shelf for a while. Then, I read the latest Black Belt Magazine, which has an interview with Jiu-Jitsu black belt and former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander Jocko Willink. In the article, he shares his insights on combat, mental fortitude, and martial arts.

He was asked about his experience in war, and how people can control their emotions and stay focused during extreme stress. Willink makes an interesting statement: “When you go into combat mode, you see less.”

My mind went back to something Gladwell wrote in Blink. Referencing David Klinger’s Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force, Gladwell draws from personal accounts of police officers using their firearms during altercations.

The officers listed several biological responses during a shooting: “extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down.”

Gladwell notes, “Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with.”

Gladwell cites Dave Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing, who argues that, “Most of us under pressure, get too aroused, and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information that we start to become useless.”

Have you ever been in the middle of a heated roll or an MMA fight and you felt helpless? Or worse, maybe you’ve experienced a combat situation where you felt what Grossman calls useless?

Grossman says that why we need to train consistently and appropriately. “You must rehearse it because only if you have rehearsed it will it be there.”

Gladwell mentions Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear and operator of a security firm in Los Angeles. He writes, “The central fact in protection is the amount of ‘white space,’ which is what [de Becker] calls the distance between the target and any potential assailant.”

In violent altercations or combat scenarios, the more white space there is, the more time a person has to react. This is true for us in most situations. The more time we have, generally, the better the outcome of the event.

What does Willink say about dealing with the physiological and emotional response we often have in stressful situations? It begins with one small step.

“It starts off with something you have to be conscious of. I tell people to physically step back. Before you can do it mentally, you have to train your mind by doing it physically. If there is a problem going on, physically step back. If you are in an argument with a coworker or your spouse, physically step back and take a breath.”

The physical distance you create, whether mental or physical, offers you that “white space” you need to make better judgments. It gives you a better picture of what’s happening.

Willink recommends training yourself to view the situation from a distance, taking a birds’ eye view.

“What you want to do is see everything that is happening. You want to look around… How accurately do you see things when you are right in them?” he asks.

To illustrate, he uses the analogy of a football game where anyone in the stands can see clearly what the quarterback needs to do, even when the quarterback can’t because he is in the middle of the game.

This idea goes back to Willink’s initial statement that we see less when we are in combat mode. But, as Gladwell points out in Blink, we can learn to make effective judgments in moments of duress.

I leave you with this idea from Willink: “Take a step back, detach, breathe and look around. When you see more, you’ll perform better. You’ll make better decisions.”

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