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Intuition - the Whisper of the Soul?

The internet is teeming with quotes and advice about intuition.

"Intuition doesn't lie"

"Always trust your intuition"

"Intuition is the whisper of the soul"

How romantic. Unfortunately, this is not just bad advice, it's TERRIBLE advice.

It sounds so wonderful though, doesn't it? That there's a hidden part of us that's always right, guiding us and feeding us perfect answers whenever we are facing a tough decision.

We love the idea not only for its mystical aura, but because it is easy. Just going with what "feels right" is much simpler than actually using the thinking part of our brain to figure something out. Fast and easy!

But always following and trusting your intuition can lead to errors in judgement and decision making.

Defining intuition

Though the word has many different interpretations, generally intuition is thought of to be a feeling of knowing without conscious reasoning.

Intuition comes from our subconscious, part of which is the product of our "lizard brain", which is the primitive part of our brain that just wants to keep us alive. Another part of our subconscious is developed from our stored experience over time through repetition.

So intuition can come from instinct or experience or a combination of both.

The trouble with instinctual intuition is that it can be in direct opposition to our values. Not always, but sometimes.

Here's an interesting example. Malcolm Gladwell surveyed hundreds of Fortune 500 companies and found that compared to the general male population, male CEOs are 3 inches taller (on average). Does height make someone a better leader? Doubtful. But the alpha leader in an animal group is usually the biggest of the pack, so we still have an instinct to equate size with leadership.

Using height as a criteria might work if you are hiring a center for your basketball team, but probably not a good idea otherwise. Some instincts are vestiges of our evolutionary past and should be suppressed.

It isn't that instincts are always incorrect, in fact they are mostly spot on. But we 21st century humans usually don't need to worry about avoiding getting eaten by big animals, which is what many of our instincts are designed to do. And following those instincts can hurt us, rather than help us.

Knowing through experience

The other kind of intuition, derived through experience, is the good kind. It is much more likely to be correct. A master chef can read a recipe and immediately, without thinking, know whether it's a winner. A detective can intuitively evaluate a crime scene to understand what happened, while someone off the street would probably be wrong.

Repetitive experience encodes valuable information into our subconscious which can be used later to make quick intuitive decisions.

The problem is that it can be difficult to tell which type of intuition is at work. Connson Chou Locke noted in the Harvard Business Review that "intuition is essentially a feeling but we do not know the source of that feeling."

So what's a person to do?

The best course of action when you have a "gut feeling" or the urge to just go with your intuition, is to take a moment. Think. Does this gut feeling come from experience or is it just a feeling with no basis beyond instinct? Does the path this feeling is moving me toward align with my values? If not, maybe it's not the right path.

Listen, trust or follow?

Intuition can be valuable, especially if we find ourselves in an emergency fight-or-flight situation. It can save our life because it gets us to act quickly. But in most situations, accuracy is more important than speed.

So LISTEN to your intuition.

Think about the feeling and if it makes sense, FOLLOW it.

But never blindly TRUST your intuition. It can lead you astray.

Think well and be well.

- Steve.


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