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How To Use Your Intuition To Get Ahead

That "gut feeling" is real, researchers say—but do you know the difference between basic, expert, and strategic intuition?

How To Use Your Intuition To Get Ahead

[Image: Flickr user kvn.jns]

When Angela Jia Kim arrived at the meeting, she discovered a problem. The cofounder of the women entrepreneur’s network Savor the Success was being hired by a large corporation to consult on a project, but her contract hadn’t been signed.

"They told me they had a little issue that needed to be worked out with my attorney but that it wasn’t a big deal; they promised it would be signed by noon,’" she recalls. The company had flown people in for the meeting and Kim didn’t know what to do. "My intuition told me to walk out—to not enter into the consultation without the contract—but my need to please others kicked in."

Against her better judgment, she went into the meeting. By the end of the day, the contract still hadn’t been signed and the phone calls Kim’s attorney placed weren’t being returned. "I walked away knowing that I had just given their team content that had taken me years to acquire," she says. "They were free to use it for future programs—and they did."

Where your "gut felling" actually comes from

Intuition is a helpful tool when it’s used the right way, says William Duggan, author of Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2007).

"Intuition is real; it comes from memory," he says. "The brain is always searching for things you’ve known or experienced that are similar to what you’re experiencing now. When it identifies one, it gives you that feeling of intuition or deja vu."

But the memory could come from anywhere, including a past experience, a friend’s past experience, or even the plot line from a movie, says Duggan. "If you think the feeling through, you might be able to identify where it’s coming from," he says. "If it’s coming from a science fiction movie you saw when you were 13, it might be a bad idea to listen to it."

Levels of intuition

Duggan says there are three kinds of intuition. The first is basic intuition—that feeling you get about something. You don’t know where it comes from and it could be right or it could be wrong.

The next is expert intuition, which comes when you become good at something. This kind of intuition kicks in because you’ve been here before.

"This is like the hospital nurse who rushes to save a patient’s life because she’s seen the symptoms before," Duggan says. "It’s not a feeling, it’s like an instinct—a thought with an immediate call for action."

And the last is strategic intuition. "This is the flash of insight you get when your mind is relaxed," says Duggan. "It often happens when you’re in the shower, exercising, or falling asleep."

Strategic intuition is different than the first two because it happens when thoughts in your brain come together to provide a solution to a problem you’ve been considering for some time. Duggan says it’s important to capture these thoughts because the brain is so efficient at wiping them away: "If you don’t catch it right away, you may lose it."

How much can you trust yourself

Determining which kind of intuition you’re feeling will help you decide whether or not you should listen to it. But should you act? That's another question.

"It’s similar to a 16-year-old telling you something," Duggan says. "Should you listen? Yes. Should you do what the 16-year-old says? Maybe or maybe not." At best, intuition should spur you to say, "Wait, I need to think about this."

Kim says she’s disappointed that she didn’t listen to her intuition, but she’s learned from it and developed a list of questions she asks herself when her intuition kicks in:

  • "Do I feel good around this person or choice?"
  • "Does this person or situation give me or take my energy?"
  • "Do I feel empowered or disempowered?"
  • "Am I going toward an adventure or running from fear?"
  • "Am I listening to my lessons learned from the past?"
  • "Would I make the same choice if I had a million dollars in my pocket now?"
  • "Do I feel respected and valued?"
  • "Am I trying to control the situation or am I leaving room for expansion?"

"Always look for evidence around what you’re feeling," Kim says. "I call it smart intuition when you’re not just acting on the feeling. A lot of it has to do with knowing who you are and what your business ethos is about. And then finding others who vibrate on the same level."

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