In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell explored the amazing power of intuition. The book shares one particular story of a fire lieutenant who, sensing something is “off” in a burning building, pulls his firefighters out moments before complete collapse of the structure. The lieutenant, at first, believed his premonition to be the result of some kind of ESP.
Over the course of 2 hours, the signals that contributed to the lieutenant’s intuition were unraveled in an interview by Gary Klein, a decision-making expert. Things had occurred that didn’t make sense – the fire was quiet, the fire was not hot enough, the fire was not responding to water.
In this after-the-fact analysis the lieutenant finally realized that his subconscious mind had actually put together pieces of a very rational puzzle in mere seconds in the middle of chaos that day. His intuition had rightly concluded that the fire was a particularly dangerous type of fire that could collapse the building. His conscious mind was so caught up in the chaos that it missed the signs. But, his conscious mind didn’t miss the message from his subconscious – “GET OUT!”
Our Intuition is Really “Under the Hood” Processing Power
The subconscious part of brain has some serious processing horsepower that our conscious minds lack. Our intuition, as it turns out, is really the result of our subconscious brain processing information and matching patterns for us in the background. The results can seem almost superhuman in both their accuracy and timeliness. But, how do we tap into this ability if we don’t have it today?
The answer can be found in the below quote, describing the circumstances under which our intuition performs badly:
“I’ve learned that your intuition about things you don’t know that much about isn’t very good” – Larry Page, Google co-founder
The fire lieutenant was an expert in fire, having spent years in the department, earning the rank of lieutenant. He had received both education in fire fighting and paid his dues in the school of hard knocks, entering dozens of burning buildings in his career. His intuition had a wealth of information to draw on.
A less experienced, less educated firefighter would have missed all these signals, had no such premonitions as our lieutenant did, and the story could have ended in catastrophe. By the same token, the incredible intuition of the fire lieutenant above, would probably not work nearly as well if he walked into your career today.
Now that we have realized what intuition really is and really isn’t, we realize that intuition is not a magical ability that we either have or we don’t. Intuition is a product of learning and experience in an area, which means that it can be developed.
Certainly some people may be predisposed to more easily learning and understanding certain areas. But, just as Jim Kouzes taught me about development of leadership skills, development of intuition seems to correlate strongly with learning and development of knowledge.
How do you become an expert and develop intuition? All it really takes is putting in the effort to learn and develop experience in an area. Your intuition will be only as good as the effort you put in.
You are probably already an expert on more than you realize… for example, you are probably an “expert” on your significant other or your parents or your closest friends. If they are “off”, your intuition probably picks up on it quickly even if you can’t put your finger on the exact thing that tipped you off. This is a natural result of spending a lot of time with those people and paying attention.
If you want to have this capability on other matters, simply start putting in the time. Some complex topics will certainly require a lot of time. But, it can be done.
This is a very freeing realization for me. It means that, intuition is not some magical power that you are born with or not born with. It means it is a simple product of sustained effort. This “superpower” is here for anyone with the will to harness if they put in the work.
Has intuition ever helped you make a decision? Did it lead you down the right path or the wrong one? Let me know your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments below.