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Judging by Appearances

A story from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink forces you to wrestle with this critical question: what keeps us from seeing people as they truly are?

Blink is a book about "the power of thinking without thinking." It's a look at how choices made in an instant aren't as simple as they seem. In one of his many examples in the book, Gladwell shows how the classical music world realized that their system for auditioning new musicians for a place in a symphony was corrupt. Though they believed their first impressions of listening to someone play an instrument were unbiased, they were quickly disproved once screens were erected between the judges and the individuals who were auditioning.

In the past 30 years, with the screens in place, the number of women in the top U. S. orchestra has increased fivefold. Instrumentalists who had previously been eliminated from consideration were now accepted. When factors like outward appearance and unconscious prejudice were removed, only pure ability was considered. Gladwell shares the story of one female instrumentalist:

When Julie Landsman auditioned for the role of principal French horn at the Met, the screens had just gone up in the practice hall. At the time, there were no women in the brass section of the orchestra, because everyone "knew" that women could not play the horn as well as men. But Landsman came and sat down and played—and she played well. "I knew in my last round that I had won before they told me," she says. "It was because of the way I performed the last piece. I held on to the last high C for a very long time, just to leave no doubt in their minds. And they started to laugh, because it was above and beyond the call of duty." But when they declared her the winner and she stepped out from behind the screen, there was a gasp. It wasn't just that she was a woman…. And it wasn't just the bold high C, which was the kind of macho sound that they expected from a man only. It was because they knew her. Landsman had played for the Met as a substitute. Until they listened to her with just their ears, however, they had no idea she was so good.

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