Here are My Takeaways from Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness – a Remarkable Book

“I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not have to see it.”
Eleanore Gusenbauer, who lived on a high point overlooking the Concentration Camp in Mauthausen, Austria, in a letter to the SS Leader at the Camp, in 1938
(Quoted in Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness)


Here’s a question — why does anyone ever go to a tanning salon? The evidence is overwhelming. It is a really risky thing to do. The evidence is in – don’t go! But, people choose to go.  Why?

Willful BlindnessYou can call this risky blindness; or intentional blindness. Margaret Heffernan calls it “Willful Blindness.” And her book, Willful Blindness: Why We ignore the Obvious at our Peril explains the why.

This is a remarkable book!

The tanning salon issue is one example/story out of many in the book.

I read it, and thought, yes, that explains why “those people” are so blind. And, then, upon further reflection, it left me asking “where am I so blind? Where are my blind spots?” Because, of all the book teaches, it definitely teaches this – we are all so blind! Yes, we are.

Here’s what she pursues:

But I am interested in why we choose to keep ourselves in the dark

Twelve months a year, I write a blog post describing my takeaways from the book I presented at that month’s First Friday Book Synopsis. It has been quite a few years since I presented a “bad,” “wrong,” not worth the time book. (Only once, in fact. No, I won’t tell you which book that was).

But this book – well, I strongly encourage you to move it up to your must read this book list. Really; you need to read this book. I’ll say it again — it is a remarkable book; an important book.

Here’s my brief “summary” of the book:

Willful blindness is about the blindness all around us – in our own lives, in our organizations and communities and institutions.
We are blind. I am blind; you are blind. And we are blind to the things we are blind to.
And, we ignore the obvious (our own blindness) at our peril.

She fills the books with important stories to pound away at this costly human trait. Maybe the most gripping is her recounting of the blindness of the people of Libby, Montana. (The story of Gayla Benefield, and the 80x the national average of the incidence of asbestosis in Libby, Montana, and W. R. Grace, and the blindness of so many of the town’s citizens. See below!).

Here’s what she doesn’t do – she doesn’t dwell on the evil of the worst among us. She does not ask “What would make Bernie Madoff do what he did?” She asks, instead, a much more perplexing question: “Why were so many so blind to what he was doing?”

It is perplexing… But she makes it less so.

She develops quite a list of “causes “of our blindness:

Why are people so blind?

  • 1st – remember, there are some “bad (evil) people”
  • Tunnel Vision – people literally do not see what they do not want to see
  • Conformity (the “in group”)
  • Hierarchy – organizational structure – division of labor (Too much “distance”)
  • Embarrassment
  • Exhaustion (Texas City)
  • Money as motivation
  • Outsourcing
  • It’s simply too hard to see – it takes too much energy to consider other viewpoints – (diversity is exhausting)…

These are all factors. And, such blindness is not a new problem, and not likely to go away anytime soon.

Here are my takeaways from this book:

  1. You can’t multitask. So, don’t try to.
  2. Acknowledge that you have blind spots. Because, you do. (And, so do I).
  3. Seriously, do not reject “regulations” so quickly.
  4. We like Easy and Convenient – being willfully blind is easier, more convenient… less exhausting. Thus, we don’t put 
in the effort to combat our own blindness.
  5. Love people, use things.
  6. Ask intentional “stasis” questions – Where should we be “stopping to think?”
  7. Make folks “change sides’ in discussions (make them take the “devil’s advocate” position).
  8. Welcome/embrace the “Cassandras” – the seekers of the blind spots…

I encourage you to read this book. Seriously. I hate to tell you, but you’ve got your own blind spots to spot.. and so do I.


Margaret Heffernan speaking at TEDxDanubia

Margaret Heffernan speaking at TEDxDanubia

Two items:

Margartet Heffernan tells the Gayla Benefield, Libby, Montana story on her TED Talk. Watch it here.

And, my synopsis of this book, with my comprehensive multi-page handout and the audio of my presentation is available at our companion web site,

3 thoughts on “Here are My Takeaways from Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness – a Remarkable Book

  1. Pingback: Here are My Takeaways from Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness | HENRY KOTULA

  2. David Pethick (@davidpethick)

    Hi Randy

    I just got around to reading Willful Blindness and you’ve made a great choice for your book of the year. We can easily fool ourselves into believing what we want to believe and the author does a masterful job of explaining how and why.

    As a business leader, I very much appreciated some of the practical (and in some cases counter-intuitive) tips for managing the risks of willful blindness. In particular, we’ve started asking people to make a passionate counter-point against their own arguments. It’s amazing how vibrant and enjoyable our meetings are when a participant embraces this challenge. We’re no longer just seeking to be right – we’re seeking truth.

    Thanks for a great review of a great book.

    David Pethick

  3. Randy Mayeux Post author

    Thanks for sharing, David.
    Ever since I read Willful Blindness, (and prepared and presented my synopsis), I have seen evidence of and elements of willful blindness in so many places — in business, in government, in law enforcement, and, yes, in my own life.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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