Rules for Intrepid Living: Rule #28

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Rule #28. Trust your gut.

When I was in my early twenties I went to a bonfire with some college friends. Drinks were flowing and everyone was in good spirits. Someone noticed an old treehouse on the property and suggested that a few of us head up with a six pack and do a little stargazing. The moment he mentioned it, I had an incredibly uneasy feeling. I couldn’t explain it, but my gut was shouting at me not to go. I turned down the invitation and suggested we head back to the bonfire. I got teased a bit, but we turned back and didn’t climb into the treehouse. Later that night, a different group did scale the treehouse, only to have the floor collapse out from under them. Luckily, there were only a few fractures and some minor injuries. It could have been much worse. My friends that had urged me to climb into the treehouse with them were stunned; how could I have known that something like this would happen? The truth is, I didn’t know, I simply trusted my gut.

Trusting your gut means placing faith in your intuition, and that can be hard to do. Part of that may be because we don’t understand exactly what our intuition is. It conjures up notions of new age mysticism, but instead of looking for a metaphysical explanation, I prefer to think of intuition as rapid cognition or thin-slicing, as Malcolm Gladwell put it in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

To paraphrase Gladwell, thin-slicing is decision-making using limited information available, done more expeditiously (and often more accurately) than the logic center of the brain can manage. In a nigh instantaneous reaction, the brain takes what’s happening in front of you, examines it for recognizable context clues garnered from your memory, knowledge, and experiences, then draws a conclusion. It happens so quickly and automatically that you don’t have the opportunity to think about how, or sometimes even what, you’re thinking. That conclusion often presents itself as what we call a “hunch.”

Listen to them.

When my gut told me not to climb into that treehouse a decade ago, my mind had quickly analyzed the situation, found context clues, and compared them to information and experience that I already had, I simply wasn’t aware of it. If I had been able to slow it all down, my mind might have pointed out that there were no good structural supports under the floor, that the wood that made up the floor sagged and looked a bit rotten, and that the structure was clearly designed to support the weight of a few children instead of a group of college students. That may be what my brain would have shown me if I could have slowed down the process. But the process can’t be slowed down. That’s the point; what we think of as intuition may very well be an evolutionary response for dealing with danger when there wasn’t time to think logically about the situation. There’s no biological need or survival imperative for pumping the brakes during that process.

Rapid cognition, thin-slicing, and intuition do not replace critical thinking, they augment it. There are plenty of situations where it’s foolhardy, and even dangerous, to proceed without a lot of logical thought and planning; it always pays to be prepared. That being said, I believe that the ability to make effective intuitive judgments is a valuable skill.

As a skill, some may be innately better at intuitively making the right decision, but we can all improve the trustworthiness of our guts. Gladwell wrote,

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions… by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.

I am, admittedly, taking some liberties with interpretation, but I believe that education and experience can improve your thin-slicing abilities. The more information you have in your head, from books, classes, experiments, and conversations, the more data your brain can use when it makes a flash decision. Still, the number one way to improve your intuition is to go ahead and trust your gut. You’ll be wrong sometimes, as we all are, but experience is the best teacher and these are valuable lessons.

So don’t dismiss your hunches, because they might lead you exactly where you need to go. The only way you’ll find out is by trusting your gut.

“Rules for Intrepid Living” is a weekly post that gives guidelines for how we can all live a bit more of an intrepid life.


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