You may be trusting something other than your intuition – and it may be misleading you
Intuition is a pretty hot-topic. Google it and hundreds of searches come up. Most of them are around the theme of “how to tap into your intuition” and “trust your intuition”.
I get it.
The world is so complex - and getting ever more so. How are we supposed to navigate through it all? If we were to slowly, deliberatively, calmly and rationally sort through the hundreds of decisions we need to make each day, we would never get anywhere. There is simply no time to do that in today’s crazy world. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (an awesome read, I highly recommend it) he writes powerfully to the ability to just know or understand something, seemingly immediately, and without any awareness of conscious thought or effort. Why wouldn’t we want more of that in our lives?
In our everyday language we venerate phrases like “I went with my gut” or “I just knew it was the right thing to do”. Note though, that these are always said after the fact – where whatever it is that we went with or did has turned out well.
Intuition is supposedly the font of all things wonderful and good: creativity, inspiration, better decisions, happiness, fulfilment. It would appear to be like some magical power, like the Force in Star Wars. “Use the Force, Luke” exhorts Obi-Wan Kanobi, and Luke goes on to successfully take out the Death Star, where all others have failed.
But the Force has a dark side – and, sorry to rain on the intuition parade – so does intuition. Chiefly because much of what we call intuition, really isn’t intuition at all.
In my previous blog post I wrote about System 1 vs. System 2 thinking, as researched and defined by Daniel Kahneman, the Noble Prize-winning psychologist, in his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In Blink Gladwell uses the phrase “thin slicing” to describe System 1 thinking in action. Thin slicing is the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices", or narrow windows, of experience. The term means “making very quick inferences about the state, characteristics or details of an individual or situation with minimal amounts of information. Brief judgments based on thin-slicing are similar to those judgments based on much more information. Judgments based on thin-slicing can be as accurate, or even more accurate, than judgments based on much more information.” (Source: Wikipedia).
In other words, thin slicing – which is System 1 in action – looks a lot like intuition.
And it is, in a way. But critically it’s also not in another way.
Because this kind of intuition is based both on data AND on thousands of hours of learning, dedication and practice of a skill or craft. It is intuition based on deep expertise. And it truly breath-taking to watch in action. Some of the memorable examples Gladwell cites are of firefighters who just “know” that there is something wrong with a fire, and by this “knowing” avert disaster and save lives. Or a master chess player who can scan another chess game in progress for just a second or two and immediately blurt out the next three moves that will win the game.
However when most of us mere mortals use the word intuition, and when we are exhorted to tap into and trust our intuition, it is based on no such solid foundation of expertise. Rather, it is intuition that arises from System 1’s heuristics (rules of thumb). And this is its flaw. Because System 1 heuristics evolved to deal with relatively straightforward, survival- type situations – not with the complex, no-clear-right-or-wrong decisions and situations that predominate modern life. And when this type of “intuition” is applied to modern life its propensity to lead us astray and jump to conclusions that are riddled with errors in judgement, biased thinking, and stereotypes is well documented and researched.
Worse, much of what we venerate as intuition is not only System 1 thinking, it’s actually self-rationalization and self-deception masquerading as intuition.
How often, for reasons we typically can’t verbalize or explain, have we really wanted something or to do something. We just know it. And so we do it. And it works out. And we praise ourselves for listening to our intuition, for going with our gut. But the truth is, if we had slowed down and really looked at where that feeling had come from, and what the feeling was really telling us, it was almost always coming from a place of wanting to be right, of wanting to have confidence in ourselves, and wanting to believe that it will all turn out for the best. Because being wrong, lacking confidence and embracing the uncertainty that is life and living feel neither good or comfortable or easy.
And if whatever we wanted or whatever we did doesn’t turn out well, we don’t tend to say “my intuition was wrong” or “I shouldn’t have gone with my gut”. Rather we tend to say “I should have thought it through more”.
This is not to say I don’t believe in intuition. Not at all. I do. Very deeply. But I’ve come to learn (the hard way, of course) that real intuition is a much harder and more elusive thing entirely than what we typically call intuition. But while harder and more elusive, it is also so so so much more valuable.
For me, I’ve come to understand that my real intuition is actually a very soft, quiet voice. I have to be still and patient and intentional (yes, that is intentionally paradoxical! ) to hear my intuition. She is a gentle voice, and I have to cultivate space and safety for her to be heard. And, contrary to what I always thought, I find that my real intuition is never a feeling, rather she is a hearing. I have to listen for her. And to create the stillness and space so that I can hear her I need to be quite deliberative and intentional. For me that looks like sustaining as close to a daily meditation practice as I can. It means journaling regularly. It means making time to be alone, going for quite walks, doodling, sitting idly drinking my morning tea while I watch the birds and survey my garden, and listening to quiet music. It means pausing to reflect and process. It means, most of all, building “time out” and rest and relaxation into my schedule and my life.
So that when intuition speaks, I can hear her. And when she speaks, she truly is my higher power. Because with true intuition, my head, heart and gut are all aligned. I am truly “in synch” with and “in truth” with myself. For me, true intuition is not a feeling. It is a knowing. A deep knowing that my actions, choices and behavior are truly grounded in my values and my purpose. And it brings a deep sense of empowerment, inspiration and calmness as all my doubts fall away and my confidence soars.
True intuition’s soft, quiet, gentle voice is well worth sitting in stillness and patience for. She is my North Star – shining the light of truth and authenticity into the darkness of self-deception and self-rationalization. If I will but be quiet and listen.
For more on intuition, see Maria Popova’s marvelous blog Brain Pickings and in particular her summary of Kahneman’s contribution towards Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction, a thought-provoking collection of essays edited by John Brockman.
The first time you become aware of the cliff edge you want nothing to do with it. No way are you getting close to that abyss that is the whole “vulnerable, authentic self thing”. That’s just marshy woo-woo swampland, a place you get lost and bogged down in. And really, you tell yourself, you’re doing ok. Sure, you could work on a few things, but who couldn’t?
But it’s like a siren call. Once you know its there, you find yourself drawn back to it. And life, and circumstances and events seem to conspire against you. Slowly, over weeks or months or years you find yourself being nudged closer. Until comes that first day when you are close enough – but not too close! – to peer over the edge. Your partner, your children, your coach, your mentor, your god, your inner widsom, your higher self - who or whatever it is that has brought you here, dammit, again – points out the scenery. You can see its beautiful over there, in that other country that is your real, authentic self. You’re free down there. Free to be yourself, to dare greatly, to be who you want to be, to be seen and heard for who you really are.
You want to get down there. But it’s a long way down, the jump looks terrifying and the journey impossible and scary. And you have no idea how to do it. In the meantime, you have all these things that keep you in your life now. Work, family, the need to earn an income, parenting, expectations – from others of you, of you of yourself. They are loving ties that bind you. And some are less loving, yes, that too.
And so you approach and retreat. As many times as it takes. As long as it takes. A little closer every time.
And then one day, you find yourself closer to the edge than you’ve ever been before. You realize that you’ve come a long way. That the country this side, this self that you keep on trying to be, is starting to feel more and more like a dead country. A “country of your skull” in the words of Antjie Krog. But down there is a living country. Lush, beautiful, alive.
And your companion voice, inside of you or next to you, shows you that you are ready, that you are not alone, and that you will have the tools and support you need to make a safe landing and bravely explore this new wilderness that is you. You will be able to walk chin up, shoulders broad, head high in that country. In that land you will not fear who or what you might meet, as on the journey there you will collect all the tools you need to flourish and thrive in this rich, verdant place.
And you find yourself right on the cliff edge, toes hanging over. Taking one breath after another. Just waiting until you are ready to take that one last step.
When you do you will be soaring, gliding. A little wobbly at first, but getting the hang of it fast. The freedom will be exhilarating and terrifying. You will feel boundless. You will be supported by the air. The wind is beneath your wings.
You take another breath in.
You jump when you’re ready.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.