How to Follow Your Gut?







October 18, 2014

The Almighty Gut; worshipped by some, neglected by most. He can be hard to detect, and even when you find His voice, others will doubt. For He is not always the right one to turn to for council. Which begs the questions:

  1. When to seek His guidance?
  2. How to hear His voice?

Sometimes it’s easy. Making a snap decision in an unfamiliar situation? That’s the Almighty Gut taking over. With no one and nothing else to go by, He’s all you got. Most of us can agree on that much, but that’s about where it ends. Let’s say I get an unexpected job offer to leave my pretty cool and stable job to move to China. I’ve always had a vague fascination for the Far East, so my first response is “cool!”. Then Reason shows up:

  • “I don’t know anyone there.”
  • “I don’t like Chinese food.”
  • “Facebook is blocked!”

And so on. There’s still that initial itch of “cool!” though, so I ask around for some opinions:

  • “Are you mad? You have a great and stable job here!”
  • “They eat dogs!”
  • “The pollution is off the charts!”

And so on. It’s clear, isn’t it? I decide not to go. Faced with a disruptive* decision, where one option is predictable and familiar, while the other is completely unknown, most of us rely on Reason** by default. Follow this to its logical conclusion, and you realise you’ll never do anything risky in your life: the status quo is always Reason’s favourite, backed up with solid arguments and proof, while the unknown is, well, unknown.

How to solve this catch-22? Facing a choice in which you have previous experience to go by for both options, we can call this a sustainable* decision. Here your gut feeling is much less important and should perhaps even be avoided. These situations usually allow you to make a clear pros and cons overview for each option, based on historical data and/or tests. This is often the case in day-to-day decisions (what will you have for dinner, where to go on holidays), as well as in a lot of business situations (should we go with vendor x or y, do we need to increase marketing spend for product z). Things change when one of the options presented to us is unknown and unpredictable, while the other is familiar and carries no obvious*** risk. This is often the case with disruptive choices: big, life-altering decisions. Contrary to popular belief, Gut should get a chance to speak up when arriving at such crossroads, using the below guidelines.

1. Catch that initial spark of curiosity

If (like in the above example) the thought of moving to China instantly horrifies you, it’s probably a good sign you shouldn’t go. Also cases where one side of the equation carries unacceptable consequences (high chance of bankruptcy or death) are best avoided. But if the potential downside is acceptable and there’s an instant positive, yet unexplainable spark****, don’t easily dismiss it. This is Him talking to you!

2. Expert advice

Though logically you can’t explain it, follow that spark and find someone who has faced a similar choice before and chose Gut. Find out why they went down that route and what they learned from His guidance.

3. Don’t just think worst-case

You should now have the inspiration to not only worry about worst-case scenarios, but also think of possible up-sides for going with the unknown. You can create a pros and cons overview for your disruptive choice, including benefits for going off the beaten track: you might learn a new language. You could make a lot of new friends. You might get a much better job when you come back home with foreign experience on your CV. Heck, you might even find out you love dog*****! Of course trusting Him doesn’t come overnight. Put yourself in unfamiliar situations to hone this skill, as He will be the only one you’ll have to go by (hint: go travel). Learn to listen to Him and if the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad, realise there can be a lot of opportunity hidden in the unknown. Your Gut will be there to guide you through it. May the Almighty be with you; Gutspeed! ------

Footnotes:* The concept of sustainable versus disruptive comes from business innovation theory. Books such as “The Innovator’s Dilemma ” and “ The Lean Entrepreneur distinguish between sustainable innovation (improving existing services and products) and disruptive innovation, where you’re headed into uncharted territory (for example by inventing a completely new product category or even industry). Not surprisingly, asking around for advice carries the same problem here as well: when on a path of sustainable innovation, your customers can provide you with great feedback and guide the way. Not so with disruptive innovation: your customers have never seen or used what you’re trying to invent, so they can also not guide you in the right direction. ** Besides most people not having experience in using their gut for big decisions, the other issue is that some people will simply not want to see you succeed at something daring and risky, because they don’t have the guts to do so themselves. *** No obvious risk being present, doesn’t mean there’s no risk. In fact, no obvious risk being present might even mean the situation is fragile, with a big, negative Black Swan hiding somewhere down the road (if this sounds interesting but like complete abracadabra, rush to Amazon or your local bookstore and start reading Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, you will not regret it). **** Learn to listen for this initial spark by being aware of your immediate feeling and thoughts after being presented with a choice. Don’t immediately try to explain those feelings and thoughts logically, but instead act as an independent “observer” to them and write them down. You can revert to these notes once logic has set in, to see what your intuitive spark was. ***** Just to be sure: this is meant sarcastically. Having lived in China for over three years, I’m still surprised that to this day, there are people in other parts of the world who truly believe most Chinese regularly enjoy dogs for dinner.