Use your head, follow your heart, and listen to your gut: the keys to optimizing your career
In the United States, we learn as children that we can be whatever we want to be. Advice like “do what you love and love what you do” is commonplace. All it takes is hard work, perseverance, and some patience. In reality, it’s not quite so simple. Parental support and a good education are keys to unlock one’s potential. Good timing and luck and who you know are also part of the equation. The bigger problem is that unlimited choices aren’t available to us. Thinking we can do anything is a slippery slope. We all have interests, abilities, skills and strengths. If one of the purposes of life is to discover your gifts, then part of the meaning of life is to give those gifts away. So the better bet is to focus on doing what you do well, and aligning your abilities, skills and strengths with your interest and passions to the greatest extent possible. But where do you start and how can you best affect the outcome?
When emotion and intuition override logic
All I ever wanted to do is make a difference in the world. It started on the white-sand beaches of Florida when I was inspired at six years old to become a marine biologist and protect marine life. Biology wasn’t a natural fit for me, so I ended focusing on becoming a corporate psychologist as an undergrad. My aim was to work for a company pushing the envelope in corporate responsibility. Working for Patagonia was my dream job. But having worked in National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier, I opted to pivot and pursue my passion for travel instead. The first dream job I landed was operating an international adventure travel company focused on providing guests with extraordinary, one-in-a-lifetime experiences. I quickly discovered that it was relatively easy to make money but somewhat difficult to make a difference in the communities that hosted our tours. So I pivoted again. My second dream job involved founding and leading an international nonprofit organization for 14 years. Our aim was to take the wonder, amazement and sheer thrill of travel and make it better by using tourism as a means to improve people’s livelihoods and protect the environments they depend upon. I was fulfilled and the organization was highly successful, but I wasn’t happy with the 60+ hour work weeks, extended travel and constant stress associated with significant overhead and running dozens of projects worldwide. I knew I needed a change to find some semblance of work-life balance, especially after becoming a parent of two beautiful children from Ethiopia. My priorities changed overnight. Although it took a couple years, I finally completed a leadership succession within the nonprofit. With a world of opportunities and clarity on my abilities, skills and strengths, I then set out to secure my next dream job.
Flash forward six months, and it’s been a sobering experience to reenter the job market after more than 20 years. I’m overqualified (read: perceived to be too costly) for many jobs and underqualified for others. I’ve applied for dozens of jobs, I’ve interviewed for a number of them, and I’ve been short-listed for several that in hindsight weren’t the best fit. I’ve sought out advice and guidance from my friends, mentors, and numerous colleagues. I’ve stayed focused on leveraging my abilities, skills and strengths, as well as my network. I quickly learned that my next dream job isn’t likely to be posted online anywhere. I learned to say no when an opportunity isn’t the right fit. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that there is some truth to the maxim “follow your heart” when it’s coupled with “use your head” and “listen to your gut”. Each has an important role to play in decision making and influencing others, but we may not realize the extent to which intuition and emotion are more important than logic when making major life decisions and securing buy-in and support for them. Case in point — consider that the world’s greatest leaders use 2.9 times more appeals to emotion and 3.4 times more appeals to intuition instead of relying on logic.
Using logic, intuition, and emotion to make decisions and exercise influence
Head/Logic — We all make thousands of decisions every day. This is aided by some 90 billion nerve cells with trillions of connections in our brains, many of which work together to help us research, and identify facts and secure proof points to support our arguments and positions and consider our options and possible outcomes. The net result is that we all tend to grow comfortable applying logic and reasoning and rationality to make decisions whether we realize it or not. It’s also not surprising that our brain works like a muscle and becomes less effective when depleted.
Heart/Emotion — When you consider how powerful our hearts are, it’s no wonder that they can control our minds, especially when we’re personally invested in the outcomes. Human hearts emit more than 50–60 times more electricity than our brains. They have some 40,000 sensory neurons that relay information to our brains and bodies. This happens in a myriad of different ways — through nervous system connections, via blood pressure and hormone production, and from electrical and electromagnetic fields that are substantively stronger in the heart than in the brain. Stories, imagery, sounds, smells, and metaphors all appeal to our emotional sense.
Gut/Intuition — There is now scientific evidence that supports the fact that people who use their intuition can make faster, more accurate and more confident decisions. This is aided by some 100 billion nerve cells in your intestines. It’s also proven that we all get better at trusting our intuition over time when we use it more frequently and learn to use unconscious information in our brains in doing so. We build trust through by appealing to others’ intuition. This is done through testimonials, peer reviews, achievements, and case studies for example.
Balancing head, heart and gut and taking action
So how do you make key career decisions when you find yourself at a cross-roads? My recommendation is to find time to focus and consider the complete picture first and foremost. This may involve meditating and getting exercise that enables you to get “into the zone”. I believe it’s equally important to seek out different perspectives from people you trust that have supported and influenced your career path. Write down the top recommendations, weight pros and cons, identify your dominant choices, and then evaluate them from all three perspectives: head, heart, gut. Validate and refine your conclusions based on feedback from others.
Once you know what you want to do, develop a game plan to secure your dream job. Identify and research your top prospects and contacts. In my case, I narrowed my focus on organizations that specialize in conservation tourism, heritage preservation, and destination management and development. Determine how you can distinctly set yourself apart from others and add immediate value. Then take action, knowing you’ve considered your options from multiple perspectives and prepared accordingly. To add value, I opted to write white papers and draft proposals to establish the business case for hiring me and focused on appealing to my audience’s heads, hearts and gut instincts centered around the concept of their getting a ROIII (return on investment with integrity and impact). How it all plays out is still to be determined, but I remain optimistic for a positive outcome.
As a global citizen and relatively new parent, I believe it’s best to keep a firm grip on reality and don’t set your own or your children’s expectations too high. (It makes it much easier to exceed them.) We all can do a better job of focusing less on what we can’t control and more on what we can control. If all we hope for ourselves and for our children is to live happy lives — knowing we’re happier when we have more control over our future — then the single most important thing may be to learn (and help others learn) to use logic, intuition, and emotion to make decisions and influence the outcomes.
Co-creating Your Future
Flash forward another 18 months. The process I described worked better than I could have ever imagined. Having set my sights on the dream job trifecta — creating three dream jobs in a row, I began to feel like I might have set myself up to take a fall. Over the course of nearly 12 months, I received numerous rejections, no responses at all in many cases, and a few offers that weren’t the right fit. It was a big blow to the ego. I became so frustrated that I felt like I needed to revert back to controlling the situation. So I initiated a new start-up, a passion play around empowering community-led tourism.
One month later everything changed. After over a year of actively pursuing every dream job I could imagine, I was offered several: helping to realize the potential of a tri-county national park in West Africa, which required living in the wilderness hours away from the closest rural community; leading a similar project in Ethiopia (my children’s home country), which would require being based in the capital city and away from my family for long periods of time; and helping to design and develop specialist conservation enterprise impact investment entities, which is ultimately what I chose to do before I landed the one job that I thought would never be possible … leading a National Tourism Board in a beautiful little country in South America
The challenges of head, heart and gut alignment were made more difficult by the fact that I needed to involve my family in the decision. It had to be our decision. Tough questions arose around big questions like the quality of our children’s education in contrast to the life’s lessons they would be privy to. What would it be like to live in a city after years in a small community where we didn’t have to lock our doors? What would happen if there were geopolitical issues in the region? And the list goes on and on.
Ultimately, due to support from numerous friends and colleagues old and new, we ended up in Guyana, South America where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. Although not without its fair share of challenges, I’m 10 months into the job and it’s been an extraordinary experience and more importantly, the family adventure of a lifetime. A great reminder of how empowering it is when you use your head, follow your heart, and listen to your gut.
About the author
Brian T. Mullis is an advisor, guide and social entrepreneur working at the intersection of sustainable development, conservation and tourism.