Intuition, confidence and self-reliance

I couldn’t help but nearly recite the definition for intuition. I was downtown having lunch with two of my former students (when living in London I had balanced consulting with teaching Intro to Marketing at NYU in London) and we had stumbled into a discussion that always animates me - using intuition versus analytics for decision making in business and in life in general.

Intuition. It’s an intriguing concept. Relied on by some, shunned by others and misunderstood by many.  It was apparent that the word itself, more or less intuition’s non-linear nature, challenged the sense of security my former students got from checklists and the definitive problem solving processes and models they were taught in business school as much as it excited them.  Like a lot of managers and, yes, even marketers, my former students confused intuition with instinct and were very nervous about relying on something that involved trusting themselves over the numbers. And while I certainly believe our gut reaction can sometimes be right, I don’t believe that hunches necessarily outperform reason.

Therein lies a fundamental misconception: intuition is not the opposite of rational thought nor does intuitive thinking give you permission to forgo analytics.  While instinct (Latin root instinctus meaning impulse) is rooted in a primal place and the subconscious mind (I like to think of it as a Darwinian attribute associated with survival), intuition (Latin root intueri meaning contemplate) is grounded in experience and knowingness.  In our superconscious mind.  Even though we can’t pinpoint its process, intuition is mindful of our intellect and thereby analytics.  After all, we can only reach the superconscious by first accessing our conscious mind.

The real challenge is it’s difficult to explain the pathway of  intuitive decision making.  Its leaps and bounds are difficult to trace so it’s easy to judge it as a less valuable tool when in fact research has shown that successful managers consistently make use of their intuition (Weston H. Agor, Intuitive Management: Integrating Left and Right Brain Management Skills, 1984). Could this be why insightful managers spend so much time retrofitting data into recommendations for executives?

Intuition is not mystical but it does rely on that illusive combination of discipline and art.  It’s an on-going process unconsciously blending and cultivating recent data you’ve analysed with past experiences, your future ambitions and the possibilities.  It’s about synthesis, one of the 5 characteristics Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard told us will be essential for success in the 21st century, an era currently defined by interconnected global crises, information overload and accelerating change.  Intuitive thinking organically adds meaning to our perceptions of data and links seemingly unrelated things to one another. But, unlike instinct, it does not give us answers upon demand.  It needs space, time and distance.

Over salad, as we debated the definition and validity of intuitive reasoning, I was reminded that as a generation Millennials display the incongruous qualities of the world they grew up in.  Like their peers, most of the students in my classes were highly collaborative and creative yet simultaneously hyper-competitive, dependent upon structure and heavily reliant on how to guides and definitive models.  My two lunch companions smiled at one another knowingly as they referenced one of their classmates who they believed would never use his intuition.  He stayed after class regularly demanding outlines of the requirements for each assignment so that he would be assured of getting an A.  He was focussed solely on achievements that were known prerequisites for a high paying job and disregarded the passion and introspection needed to develop meaningful leadership traits.

Like many of their classmates, the two people sitting at the table with me had participated in community service, internships and an impressive list of extracurricular activities.  As working adults they are fabulous at staying in touch with everyone they’ve met and adept multi-taskers.  Yet it sometimes seems that their constant focus on productivity, doing what’s right and CV building, things which Boomer parents emphasised from early on, has come at a price.  The pressure to stay caught up and charge ahead prevents Gen Yers from feeling comfortable stepping back and reflecting.  They are nervous about reckoning their way out of things themselves and rely steadily on friends and family for validating even simple decisions. This could be a life-stage phenomenon that will change as they age and yet it may not be.  So many scientists and researchers keep proving technology and media are rewiring the human brain.

From what I’ve learned investigating Gen Y professionally, working side-by-side with young adults and interacting with them socially, many are more secure with the process of soul searching (completing journals, seeing therapists, attending lectures and reading self-help books) than with the space and time needed for contemplation.  And, while the concept of free time is an obsession for Millennials, it appears to be overpowered by the need to stay connected and the fear of not being in the know or missing out on an exciting happening.

Certainly, though, even with the economic slow-down, my lunch companions and other young adults I know continue to have a more positive outlook than their older counterparts.  They still are eager to impress and live by the creed don’t settle, but how long will this last given the jobs crisis?  And, are the people I’m interacting with on a day-to-day basis the norm; do all young adults have a similar attitude?  Although I suspect not, I still hope so.

As Gen Yers age and become more responsible for real world issues such as the economy, the environment and international politics, society’s focus on bigger, faster, stronger may give way to idealism, collective activity and greater community engagement, all Millennial traits. But will Millennials themselves have created enough opportunities to reflect on the essential life lessons that develop wisdom needed for intuitive decision making, something that like Howard Gardner and Daniel Pink (author of Drive and A Whole New Mind) I believe we’ll need to rely on more as the 21st century progresses?  As a generation will they feel confident enough to reflect and break through the structure in their lives to find their intuitive voice and be comfortable with it when it comes to the big decisions?  No choice in a fast paced environment with changing rules is guaranteed, regardless of how many numbers we analyse.

As we paid the bill and said our goodbyes a long-forgotten quote by John Naisbitt, author of Re-inventing the Corporation, Global Paradox, Megatrends and Mind Set! came to mind.  “Intuition becomes increasingly valuable in the new information society precisely because there is so much data.”  And as it did, I had confidence that my former students were self-reliant enough to make an intuitive leap the next time they completed their checklist.

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