Don’t Trust Your Gut, Investigate It

I am so grateful to have had a father who is also one of my heroes. You would have loved him. Everyone did. Those involved in the Life Leaders GPS get to learn a bit of his story as an “uphill person”. You want to know one of the best things about him? He kissed my mom every day. After a day of work, they always greeted each other with a kiss. They were married 68 years when he passed.
Many adults experience their parents getting smarter as they get older. The thing about my dad was that he was wise. By profession, he was an appliance repairman. You know how people use the expression, “He has forgotten more than most people will ever know”? That phrase was very fitting for my dad. The guy was an encyclopedia when it came to the appliance repair world.
Every one of my siblings (and countless other people) have stories of being on the phone with my dad and having him walk you through appliance repairs. He would say,
“Tell me the make and model number.” 
“Okay, go to the front of the dryer. Look at the left side of the control panel.”
“There is a screw there. Take that off and remove the panel. You will see two more screws on the front corners. Take those out and pull the front panel off.”
“Look in the bottom of the dryer. You will see a metal arm with a plastic roller laying there. That means your belt is broken. It shouldn’t be laying there. You need a new belt. It is part #……”
It was uncanny. Every step was exactly as he described.
As his son, I experienced that his knowledge and life skills went way beyond the appliance realm. He was a process guy. He understood how things fit together and he could talk you through life’s circumstances from beginning to end. Buying your first car? He would tell you everything to expect when you went on the lot. Home loan? Getting insurance? Home repairs? All the same, call him up and he could walk you through it.
He was by no means a perfect man, but he was an amazing man. He is a great testimony to the principle that “Leadership is Influence.” His last breath came on September 2, 2012 but his influence remains. He also had great intuition.
If you read anything about intuition, it almost always comes with the caution of its unreliability as the sole source for decision making. For example, a November 2002 article in Psychology Today cites this incident.
In July 2002, a Russian airliner’s computer-guidance system instructed its pilot to ascend as another jet approached in the sky over Switzerland. At the same time, a Swiss air-traffic controller—whose computerized system was down—offered a human judgment: descend. Faced with conflicting advice, the pilot’s intuitive response was to trust another human’s intuition. Tragically, the two planes collided midair, killing everyone on board.

It is no wonder intuition requires vigilance given the definition of the word


The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. A thing that one knows or considers, likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.
My dad had great instincts. His intuition was strong but it was effective because he matched it with reason. There are plenty of people operating their lives purely out of their assumptions too busy “trusting their gut” or the unfounded garbage someone else has fed them to let the facts get in their way. Unchecked intuition can be the source of a great deal of pain.
One of my career experiences helped me to understand this well. I got my start as a camp professional in a Y camp but after three years, I was ready for a change. This led to an eight-year hiatus from the Y in therapeutic wilderness camping. I returned to Y camps at Camp Classen in Oklahoma. At 2,400 acres, Classen is the fourth largest Y camp in the U.S.. When I arrived, I was the director of one of three major parts of the camp called 89’er Village. It was an area for teens that offered adventure-based programming in the summer and environmental education for schools and retreat camping in the non-summer months. It was designed to be run like an autonomous camp. It needed no other facilities from the rest of the camp to operate. My encounters as the director of 89’er Village will have to be other stories for other days.
As it happens, the camp suffered the loss of two large school districts who sent their 5th grade classes each for a week of environmental education. This meant that nearly overnight, the camp went from being a $2.4M operation to a $1.2M operation. It was on the first day of the fiscal year that I became the executive director of the camp. It was like having a patient in cardiac arrest. Besides stepping into a financial crisis, I stepped into the middle of a 20-year old feud between the camp board of managers and the CEO of the Oklahoma City YMCA. It was a huge mess. Here is my point. As the financial crisis began to approach, there was a suggestion that 89’er Village be closed and all camp operations be run out of the main/original part of the camp. In the one and a half years prior to becoming the executive director, I was dead set against this idea and I was extremely fired up about it. Everything in my gut told me it was a rotten idea and I had plenty of emotionally-charged arguments on the subject. I knew in my heart and with every fiber of my being that it was the wrong decision to make.
Then, suddenly, I was the executive director. I started looking at the numbers and asking camp directors and non-camp professionals all over the country what their take on the situation was. It didn’t take me long to realize that closing 89’er Village was the right move to make and we did it. Some people hated me for it and some probably still do but I left the camp after three years with the camp finishing $400K ahead of budget. It was painful but it taught me a valuable lesson about “trusting my gut” and mob mentality.
I say all of this not to malign intuition. Intuition is powerful and may be our highest form of intelligence. Just as we can suffer greatly by blindly trusting our assumptions, we can lose out big-time by discounting them.
The problem with the hunches and gut feelings we have is that we are usually the worst person to determine if they are reliable. I will share more on this topic in another message but it seems to me that we should drop the proverb
“Trust you gut.”

And adopt the adage of

“Investigate your gut.”

Another Psychology Today article from May 2007 says it this way.
The best explanation psychologists now offer is that intuition is a mental matching game. The brain takes in a situation, does a very quick search of its files, and then finds its best analogue among the stored sprawl of memories and knowledge. Based on that analogy, you ascribe meaning to the situation in front of you…
…Encased in certainty, intuitions compel us to act in specific ways, and those who lack intuition are essentially cognitively paralyzed.

We are not all Dr. Spock. Logic alone doesn’t serve us well and, as far as I can tell, we haven’t mastered the mind meld thing as a society. Intuition is powerful and ignoring it makes us downright ignorant. When we do we are tying half our brains behind our backs. Harnessing the power of intuition can be like catching lightning in a bottle. There is a way to make our intuition serve us well. Read the Columbo post to see what that is.


Rick Burris

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