Success as an Unconscious Process: Level 2 and Revisiting “Blink”

In Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Psychology, Psychology of Success, Sports Psychology, Success on June 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm
Bakari Akil II thrown by instructor James Smiley

Bakari being thrown by instructor James Smiley

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.  

We slapped hands, as is customary before a grappling session. His demeanor was calm and he gave no indication when we were talking earlier that he was ultra-aggressive. We postured for a brief second, sizing each other up. Without warning he leapt into the air with both of his arms, legs and torso coming my way. Reflexively, I placed both hands in the middle of his chest and pushed him downward. There was a thunderous sound when he hit the mat. We both looked at each other for a moment; me startled by his aggression and he by my quick but explosive defense.

What happened that moment lies at the heart of what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. I am by no means an expert at Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ), which is essentially wrestling with submissions. But I have been practicing BJJ as well as Judo for a combined 4 years. Each class we drill takedowns, takedown defense, how to hold someone down, how to protect yourself if taken down and how to make a person submit through a combination of chokes, joint locks and other nefarious techniques.

Once we finish drills we then ‘roll’ or wrestle with each other to solidify the techniques we practice. Where I train, new and advanced techniques are introduced often. Yet, they are extensions of basic techniques, so it is not uncommon to practice the basics hundreds of times. We practice to the point where carrying out a technique becomes an unconscious process. Or what Gladwell would describe as a Level 2 event. Level 1 is reserved for tasks where we must be actively engaged in order to get something done. Unfamiliar tasks and unknown variables cause us to perk up and pay attention in these situations.

At a speech at the University of Washington, Anthony Greenwald, Ph.D. who Gladwell also profiles in his book, discussed the unconscious manner in which we operate when performing certain tasks. He asserted that we are comfortable in these situations and can go through the motions without having to think about what to do next. He cited riding a bicycle, going through a checkout lane and driving as actions where we don’t often give our full attention. In fact, he went a step further and said we spend most of our life in Level 2.

But this is referring to the everyday, ordinary and mundane tasks we face. What about the areas of life where you truly want to excel? How many of the tasks related to you becoming a success in this area do you complete at Level 2? How many ‘reps’ have you done; how much ‘film’ have you watched; how many ‘plays’ have you devised and practiced and how many ‘competitions’ have you entered in order to make what you do an unconscious process. Sure, you must be fully present when engaging in any activity. But the more you can focus on the big picture and not on the individual steps the better off you will be.

For some intriguing ideas on success investigate Dr. Akil’s new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.

  1. Nice article. The questions at the end really may you think and want to focus on your own unfinished project.

  2. Thanks! I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions too.

  3. Interesting article. I like Malcolm, and I train BJJ. I struggle with your characterization of BJJ as essentially wrestling. At the same time, explaining the art to the uninitiated and how it differs from wrestling is challenging.

  4. Thanks Scott,

    You’re right I was searching for an easy way to describe BJJ to those who don’t know what it is. I could have tried to say it is like the ground aspect of Judo, but more intense. But I don’t know if that would have made sense to someone who doesn’t know what Judo is either.

    I still have people asking me how my Karate classes are going?

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