Intuition vs Thinking

Albert Einstein on Intuition Much of what I want to reiterate here was gone over in depth by Michael R. LeGault in his book Think – Why Crucial Decisions Can’t be Made in the Blink of an Eye (2006.) However, my views are based on my own area of expertise and experience. My experience might differ from yours.

Today I watched a series of tweets emerge about the wonders of intuition. These tweets were posted by a professional boxer who has become very good at his trade … a trade based on reactions and reaction time … which in turn are based on hours upon hours of practice and ‘experience.’ I fear people reading those 140 character gems of wisdom may try to apply them to major life and business decisions thinking that they are employing intuition. I truly fear the decisions they will make.


Before we go any further, lets look at some definitions:

Intuition according to Google is, “a thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.” (2nd definition)

Thinking (Google again) is, “the process of using one’s mind to consider or reason about something.”

Lets throw one more definition into the mix because it is so very important to this discussion:

Experience is (going with, 4th definition for this example,) “knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone.”

The argument I want to make in the discussion of Intuition vs Thinking is that intuition is not worth anything without some sort of experience to base it on. Gut feeling (intuition) is something you must develop with time and hands-on experience. Further, you must learn to apply that experience broadly to the situation at hand if you have no direct experience in the topic. (ie. If you are a boxer, you might make very good intuitive decisions when playing a game of pick up basketball … but your intuition might lead you astray if you are jumped by a smart player in the boardroom. Intuition can be relied on in situations with a lot of crossover with your area of expertise, but should only be broadly applied in areas where your experience does not have so much crossover.)

Intuition is not Mystical

There is a popular stereotype of intuition as it being some mystical thing; something based on being in tune with the universe or some internal god. This is all silly. There is nothing mystical or godlike in the development of intuition. It might LOOK godlike or unexplainable to those who don’t have your experience which probably explains this belief, but rest assured … the god’s are not speaking to you … you are not our saviour. lol. Your good intuition is based on the depth of your experience, nothing more.

The Tie Between Experience and Intuition – based on my own life.

My personal definition of intuition is: “the application of experience to a given situation.

I am an appliance repair person. (Ya, I never intended to reveal this depth of who I am here, but the balance of privacy and qualification online is tricky.) I’m the guy you call when your washing machine or fridge is broken. I’ve been doing this 5 or 6 days a week for 26 years. I visit 8 to 12 homes a day. I have a LOT of experience … and I have incredible ‘intuition.’ When I take apprentices out for training, they are alway amazed at how I can just ‘know’ what is wrong with an appliance almost before touching it. Guys (and gals) …. it’s all based on experience! There is nothing that I have not seen in one form or another when it comes to a broken appliance. NOTHING! Oh, the appliance might be new and the controls might be different, but I’ve seen so many ‘problems’ in the past that the crossover of my experience makes my intuition almost perfect. My biggest problem is not believing my intuition. When I make a mistake, I can almost always go back and look at my initial thoughts of a problem and see where I took the wrong path. Almost 100% of the time the mistake was made at the point where I ignored my ‘first impression’ or ‘gut feeling’ and went with some other theory.

Now … did I always have intuition? No way! I’ve made so many mistakes in appliance diagnosis over the years! Especially at the beginning of my career, if I deviated from the troubleshooting flowcharts, I was screwed. But as I made those mistakes, I built up the internal database of experience that my intuition now draws from. I often have no clue where I’ve seen something before; no clue why I feel one direction is right and the other is wrong. The actual basis for the experience is lost from memory, but the application of that experience in the form of intuition lives on.

How to Apply Intuition in Your Life

I hope I’ve not bored readers with my own story and experience and I learned about intuition long after I developed it, but I think that certain things can be done to both develop your own intuition and to mitigate any damage done by bad intuition.

First of all … think! Take that ‘gut feeling’ and put it up on a pedestal in your mind. Look at it from all directions. See where it leads. Can you figure out where that feeling came from? Does it lead you somewhere else that might provide an answer to your problem? But until you have a reservoir of experience to draw from, think before you act.

Practice mindfully. This might not be easy in the heat of the moment. (I was also a boxer, a very poor boxer in a previous life … almost 20 years ago now. I did not learn much from my mistakes. I jumped into situations that I was not equipped to handle … and I spent too much time working on emotion rather than rational thought.) Practice is learning time, but to know what you’ve learned from any given experience, you must think about it. Review the game or fight or event in your mind afterward. Did your actions bring about victory? Did they almost lead you to defeat … were you wrong? If so, why and how? How can you do better next time? Maybe write it down (I think they call that journaling … whatever.) Learn from both your victories and your mistakes. Think now, so that in the heat of the battle you can act because you’ve already though. (Thank you David Allen of Getting Things Done for that gem.)

Finally, when you do act on intuition, review the event. How did intuition come to you? Was it a voice (internal talk?) Was it a feeling in the pit of your stomach, or was it a thought or image the popped into your mind? (That’s how my intuition generally works: a thought or picture jumps into my conscious mind.) Was it right? Can you rely on it? Can you make it happen again?

A huge thanks to Ed Latimore: 13-0 boxer (at the time of this writing), chess player and thinker for bringing up this topic on twitter. Good stuff … lots of good thinking  (and intuition) to be done on this topic!

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