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Holding Onto Your Instinct In The Age Of Data

Neil, pro thief has nearly finished his bank heist when he hears a noise outside and orders the crew to abandon their mission and exit the job without their plunder. His chief driller protests, they’ve nearly tunnelled through, but Neil insists they walk away.

A good thing they did because the gang is under surveillance and suspicion for the murder of three security drivers. The police are watching them at this very moment.

Neil, and lead police investigator Vincent, know that without having the goods in their possession, the case will get thrown out of court. Not a great night for either party.

The gang walk away from their job empty-handed but without being arrested.

I am talking about Michael Mann’s Heat, of course.

Neil operates with criminal instinct which is not some supernatural second sense that guides him; it is the culmination of his life in crime, including jail and a career’s worth of experiences.

When he does follow an urge for revenge over his instinct, the consequences are fatal.

In the age of data and productivity apps and access to knowledge are we forgetting about our most complex data processor, our instinct?

What Is Instinct?

I’m going to use the phrases instinct and intuition interchangeably. My intuition tells me that someone may get upset at my failure to differentiate. My instinct says to do it anyway — see, they’re so interconnected it’s hardly worth worrying about.

I’m talking about our internalised and automated reaction to the world which governs our behaviour; when instinct speaks it’s not because we’ve asked it a question, it’s our subconscious voice rising to send us a message. It’s like a club card or rewards scheme for our experiences.

We owe it a listen.

In this age of data and digital automation, this tool is not always recognised or encouraged as a guiding light.

Children have it, our pets have it, we all have it, but we ignore it for a variety of reasons, which I look at below.

Over time humans have started to divide people into different categories depending on the way they think; two of those are intuitive and rational. Take a Myers Briggs test, and you’ll put into a Thinking or Feeling category the inference is that you won’t be both.

The first category describes a rational person who reasons our their decision making with a logical and systematic process. The second describes a person who makes their decisions based on their emotions and feelings and who are less rational beings.

Einstein is said to have favoured intuition.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

In an article from the World Economic Forum on gut feelings it is reported that the intuitive vs rational divide is based on a cognitive myth.

This attitude is based on a myth of cognitive progress. Emotions are actually not dumb responses that always need to be ignored or even corrected by rational faculties.

How can we make sure that we give it the space it deserves to have a seat at our decision making table?

Urge Vs Instinct

We shouldn’t mix up urge with instinct; the two things are often diametrically opposite. An urge is something uncontrolled that barges into your consciousness before your instinct has had time to raise its hand.

A philandering spouse has an urge to have an affair with the neighbour. Instinct tells them they’ll get caught. They ignore their intuition and follow the urge — they get caught.

A jealous colleague puts in a false claim against their co-worker. Instinct tells them not to do it, it’s against their value system, but someone else eggs them on, urge wins and the jealous colleague is exposed and fired.

We read an outrageous post on Facebook, which suits our political beliefs; our instinct says that we should investigate the claim, but our urge tells us to the outrage. Urge overtakes instinct, and we’ve just been complicit in the act of sharing false information and contributing to a divided world.

Business Instinct

In an article for Forbes magazine, Chip Wilson called intuition the ‘big data for your body,’ and reports that 40% of CEOs follow intuition over empirical data.

We willingly buy and sell marketing data packages and see them as a ‘scientific’ assistant to our venture but there is no guarantee.

The narrative of business gurus such as Musk or Jobs focus heavily on the success stories and leave the details of failed ventures in the shadows. We all prefer a success story after all; we don’t want the grit about how hard it is. Not in the beginning anyway, not until we hit the problems ourselves.

I’m not saying don’t look at the data but don’t forget you have an intuitive insight to add to the mix and if you don’t, if you feel nothing at all maybe going down this road isn’t going to be worth the hassle.

Marketing Instinct

I wrote this blog after implementing many pieces of equal but opposite marketing advice, sometimes to the detriment of my instinct.

I didn’t lose a limb or anything, but I did get cross with myself about ignoring that nagging feeling.

When a new method doesn’t feel right, perhaps, it’s worth investigating because if it doesn’t fit in with your big why it might not be for you.

The advice comes thick and fast about things like these;

Should you cold call?

Do you only publish blogs at certain times of the day?

Do you publish every day no matter what?

Do you message new connections and get them on your list?

Do you invest in Pay Per Click Advertising?

I’ve heard enthusiastic proclamations for and against each of those questions and if you’ve got time and money to try them all out that’s great, but when you don’t have ample supply of either thing you could try exploring your instinct.

Survival Instinct

Remember the scene in The Silence of the Lambs where Buffalo Bill asks a woman for help moving a sofa into the back of his van. His victim hesitates for one moment; something isn’t right. We’re screaming at her, so is her instinct but she ignores both.

Please don’t go in.

But she doesn’t want to be rude or unhelpful, and we know how that ends.

Why Do We Ignore It?

So if we’ve got this fantastic memory processor that gives us state of the art, real-time response kit why do we still ignore our instinct sometimes?

Because it requires an awkward conversation

Sometimes following our instinct means a fight or a confrontation which most of us don’t enjoy. So we park that nagging, gut feeling that something isn’t right.

Like the woman in Silence of the Lambs.

Maybe it’s hard to articulate precisely

Maybe other times the instinct isn’t as clear as it should be. The voice is faint and distant, and the intention of the subject could go either way.

Opposing forces to your instinct can be loud, shrill or seem like more of an expert than you.

Sometimes it is competing with forces that seem expert or knowledgeable. Sometimes these voices will tell us that our instinct is wrong, but we must get used to keeping our own counsel with our intuition.

You want a short cut or an easy ride.

Sometimes, and this is more often the way with me these days, we just want a short cut. Deep down I know I probably can’t make £26000 by writing one article in twenty-five minutes, but I still read the blog and possibly put a few suggestions into play before my instinct pulls me to one side to tell me off.

Ha, ha, told you so.

You don’t recognise the voice.

If you’re not used to listening to your instinct, the voice may appear strange and unfamiliar. There may be hundreds of reasons why you’re not used to following your intuition. Maybe you live in a safe and gated community and have never experienced fear or uncertainty. Perhaps you’re au fait with taking instructions.

It doesn’t mean your instinct isn’t there, but I guarantee you that one day you’ll need it. No one can get through life without a few bumps in the road.

The WEF article states that intuition, like creativity, is like a skill or mindset that can be practised. We’ve all got it, and the more we practise using it, the more robust it becomes.

Fear of being wrong.

This one we just need to get over and accept that we will be wrong. The more we try new ventures and fail the less flustered our instinct will be about the prospect of failure.

Dangers of Ignoring It

Life, as explored in the Silence of the Lambs example.

Time — you could spend a lot of time running in the opposite direction, only have to come back again once you realise you’re going the wrong way.

Money — there are a lot of marketing forces out there who will sell you a guaranteed results-driven product, and sometimes they work, but if the product isn’t aligned with your values as a person, you may have spent a fortune on the wrong product.

Losing a piece of yourself — this is a tough one and leads to the biggest frustrations for me, and it’s the long journey back that is tedious.

Listening To Your Instinct

Don’t feel bad about reacting to something that goes against your instinct. You don’t have to be rude or nasty about something to reject it. Not all pieces of advice or courses of action are suitable for you or your objectives.

Hold back permission for others to diagnose you as merely a thinker or a feeler; give your instinct that permission to guide you.

Listen, at the very least when you have that gut feeling. Don’t see it as an out of control emotion but as the output of a lifetime of experience.

You own your instinct, don’t let anyone take it away from you. Anyway, in this time of flux, nobody knows anything.

If you can’t hear it, keep listening, slow down, it’s there and most importantly don’t be afraid to try things out. You can, as the WEF article states improve your intuition, like creativity through experience.

Have I dragged you through this article to tell you to keep trying? Kind of, but maybe you’ll be more in-tuned with your instinct as you go along and you’ll resist any hard selling marketing tools, not end up in the basement of a serial killer’s apartment or be a bit more forgiving to yourself on those failed missions.

Allow yourself to make non-life-threatening mistakes, know that each hit is a notch on your intuition bedpost, be brave through this knowledge, keep trying and think of your instinct as one of your mentors.

Don’t throw your intuition away because someone else is telling you otherwise.

Instinct Checklist

  • Does this feel right?
  • What’s the last memory you can link this feeling to?
  • What’s the opposite force of your instinct?
  • Where’s it coming from? A place of fear, hope, desire, ambition?
  • What’s the risk/reward of not going with your instinct?
  • What’s the risk/reward of going with your instinct

Thanks for reading. I’m a creative writer and copywriter blogging regularly about life, business and creativity. If you’re interested in joining my newsletter where I share similar articles to this, please subscribe below.

First published in Data Driven Investor on Medium.

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