Playing chess blindfolded

Chess black The world of rock & roll, in which I once claimed full-time citizenship, offers up an amazing assortment of humanity to observe—from musicians to dancers to promoters to recording engineers to disk jockeys to music critics and more.

Given the weird, wild, and wonderful personalities in such a universe, it’s inevitable that people will form stereotypes of some of its inhabitants. This, of course, occurs in other parts of life, but seems to happen more in rock-and-roll land.

I've learned a valuable lesson from this: we can do real damage with our "characterizations" of others based on limited information—which can be madly inaccurate and dehumanizing to the individuals we label. Such stereotypes also set up a “self-reinforcing feedback loop” in which we unconsciously look for evidence for our assumptions—and then use whatever evidence we find to validate those assumptions.

A nightclub manager I worked with decades ago presents a perfect illustration of someone unjustly labeled.

Brendon (not his real name) started his career in the nightclub business as a doorman-bouncer for a new rock establishment. He was well suited for the job given his expertise in self-defense and especially karate. But when he graduated to manager of the club, it took him years to gain the full respect he deserved because he had been negatively characterized by some as a “dumb bouncer.” (I should add that this nightclub was located in the heart of an Ivy League campus, where karate prowess was not a highly valued competence.) It worked against him that he didn’t score high in the people-skills department in his early years—he was a tad stiff and reserved—which stood in sharp contrast to the extroverted style of the club’s owner.

Some customers—and performers—mistook Brendon's taciturn nature for a lack of intelligence. If he didn’t say much, that was proof that he was, you know, "not very bright."

In those days I performed often enough at the club—as opening act for the main bill—to see him in action on a regular basis. I eventually began to question the narrative on Brendon, who seemed surprisingly organized and efficient (for a presumed dolt)—and who even managed to treat his customers, staff, and musical performers professionally. So one night, over a round of Metaxa (the house drink that Brendon poured for his musical talent at closing time) I decided to get the lowdown on him.

I started out by asking him what he did before working at the club. I was immediately taken aback when he mentioned he attended a local college where he played on the chess team. (That didn’t quite fit the profile of an imbecilic brute.) He seemed reluctant to tell me about it—perhaps because in his circle of physical fitness enthusiasts being a good chess player was not a highly valued competence? But, being a tad lubricated in the moment, I tactlessly plowed ahead with my intrusive questions. I dragged the information out him that he not only led his college chess team to a state championship, but that he had frequently played blindfolded—and WON—against multiple opponents who were not blindfolded. (Blindfold chess entails keeping track of several different games at once without looking at the boards. I, for one, can barely keep track of a single game with my eyes open.)

This conversation closed the case for me on Brendon. This “dumb bouncer” had to have astonishing visuo-spatial abilities and one hell of a memory. In fact if we had to go with a stereotype to describe him, why not just go with “genius”?

After that night, I gleefully spread the word that the previously reviled Neanderthal doorman was in fact a prodigy.

I don’t know if Brendon was ever aware of how others had specifically characterized him, but I’m sure on some level he felt their disdain, which must have been hurtful. (Of course even if he wasn’t a brilliant guy, it wouldn’t justify others’ lack of kindness toward him.) The stereotype was cruel, as well as wildly inaccurate.

In business I see the same phenomenon played out every day. Managers routinely stereotype employees (“lazy,” “not a team player”), employees make characterizations of their bosses (“empty suits,” "yes men"), men have labels for women in power (“ambitious,” “pushy”) and so on.

It might be useful to assume that when we’re trying to work with people we don’t understand—and don’t take the time to understand—we’re all playing chess blindfolded, without the mental acumen that Brendon displayed in his tournaments.

I'm told that Brendon is now the owner of the same establishment, which is one of the premier concert clubs in the US, having hosted The Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen.

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  1. I've figured out the club and the manager/owner. I know of only one major concert club on the campus of an Ivy League school.

    Guys who don't talk a lot are often pigeon holed as "slow"—especially if physical fitness is their thing. It's unfair but common.

  2. As Susan Cain points out in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, our culture tends to devalue folks who live too far on the introverted side of the spectrum. For a previous post on that check here.

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