The Power of the Hunch: When Your Inner Voice Speaks, Shut Up and Listen

One big indicator of the absence of wisdom is our failure to heed warning signs. History is filled with examples. The consequences of ignoring warning signs came to life for me a few years ago when I was visiting Pompeii. Walking around the ancient city, I was reminded how its people were wiped out in AD 79 by a volcanic eruption.

There had been many warning signs, including a severe earthquake in AD 62, tremors over the ensuing years, springs and wells that dried up, dogs that ran away, and birds that no longer sang. And then the most obvious warning sign: columns of smoke belching out of Mount Vesuvius before the volcano blew its top, burying the city and its inhabitants under sixty feet of ash and volcanic rock.

The warning tremors had been dismissed as “not particularly alarming.” The warning signs of impending catastrophes are all around us today, pointing out the gulf between what we know we should be doing — on climate change, on growing economic inequalities, on the failed war on drugs — and what we’re choosing to do instead. And the source of this gulf is an absence of wisdom.

One big source of wisdom is intuition, our inner knowing. We’ve all experienced it: a hunch, an inkling, our inner voice telling us to do something or not to do something. We hear the message, and it feels right, even if we can’t explain why. Or for those of us who are more visual, we see something. A flickering insight, sometimes gone by the time it has registered if we don’t learn to pay attention to it — the smile on the face of a child seen from the window of our train rushing by a playground. Even when we’re not at a fork in the road, wondering what to do and trying to hear that inner voice, our intuition is always there, always reading the situation, always trying to steer us the right way. But can we hear it? Are we paying attention? Are we living a life that keeps the pathway to our intuition unblocked? Feeding and nurturing our intuition, and living a life in which we can make use of its wisdom, is one key way to thrive, at work and in life.

There are some for whom the word “intuition” conjures the idea of hippy- dippy New Age thinking, or something to do with the paranormal. But, in fact, from the beginning of recorded history, we have had the recognition of a kind of wisdom that is not the product of logic and reason. Western culture is a monument to reason. It gave us the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution and the information age, and all that has followed. But it wasn’t reason alone that gave us those triumphs, nor is it reason alone that gets us through the day.

The third-century philosopher Plotinus wrote that there are three kinds of knowledge: “opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense, of the second, dialectic, of the third, intuition.” The Internet has made the first two types of knowledge very easy to come by. But it has taken us further away from that illumination, or wisdom, that is essential to living a life that matters.

Science has confirmed how important intuition is in the way we make decisions. “It has long been realized,” psychologists Martin Seligman and Michael Kahana wrote, “that many important decisions are not arrived at by linear reasoning, but by intuition.”

They go on to describe intuition- based decision making as: “a) rapid, b) not conscious, c) used for decisions involving multiple dimensions, d) based on vast stores of prior experiences, e) characteristic of experts, f) not easily or accurately articulated afterwards, and g) often made with high confi — dence.”

There’s a reason why we feel that our intuition comes from deep inside — why it’s referred to sometimes as a “gut instinct” or a “feeling in your bones.” It’s because it’s part of the core of our internal wiring. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how that core, the adaptive unconscious, functions as “a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.”

Indeed, the point of Blink was how the reading of a situation by our adaptive unconscious, or intuition, can actually be much more accurate than our conscious, well thought-out take. Gladwell tells the story of a kouros, a statue from ancient Greece, acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A team of scientists, after many tests, vouched for its authenticity. But a few art historians, including Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, instantly knew otherwise; Hoving felt an “intuitive repulsion” for the piece. “In the fi rst two seconds of looking — in a single glance,” writes Gladwell, “they were able to understand more about the essence of the statute than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months.” Could they explain why they knew? Gladwell asks. “Not at all. But they knew.” And they turned out to be right. It was a fake.

In his book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein tells the story of a group of firemen fighting a fire inside a one- story house, spraying water at the flames in the kitchen: “The lieutenant starts to feel as if something is not right. He doesn’t have any clues; he just doesn’t feel right about being in that house, so he orders his men out of the building — a perfectly standard building with nothing out of the ordinary.” The commander later said that he couldn’t explain what had led him to shout the warning, attributing it to a “sixth sense.” It was a very good thing that he did because just after the men followed his order and left, the floor they’d been standing on collapsed. The fire, it turned out, had been centered right below them, in the basement, which he had no clue even existed.

Klein also recounts a story of experienced nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit who could tell when a premature baby had sepsis despite conflicting symptoms — a crucial thing to know, since an infection could be fatal if not immediately treated. Often the nurses would know even before the test results came up positive. When he asked them how they knew, they said: intuition. “They looked,” Klein writes. “They knew. End of story.” Their intuition, it turned out, was based on subtle clues that the nurses themselves would be hard put to articulate. But they drew the proper conclusion in an instant.

We all know we have access to intuition if we nourish it and listen to it. We know that our intuition can be more accurate than trying to bear down on a problem with cold, hard logic. And we know that the consequences of listening to — or not listening to — our intuition can be, literally, a matter of life or death. So why do we so often ignore or disregard that inner voice in our lives?

I’m certainly not immune. I think about how often in my life I have ignored those whisperings, how easy it is to dismiss them or brush them aside or get so busy and harried that I simply don’t take the time to listen. And often it’s because I haven’t got a rational explanation for why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. But, of course, that’s precisely why we should pay attention. That is part of what wisdom, as opposed to logic or data, is all about.

Let’s say you’re walking home one night. You come upon a dark alley, and you feel a little uneasy — a slight discomfort, a version of what the fire commander called his “sixth sense.” Your inner voice, your adaptive subconscious, says, “Don’t go down this alley.” But you’re in a hurry, so you do, albeit nervously. If your intuition is right, the consequences could be severe.

Or let’s say you are interviewing to fill a vacant position at work. You feel a slight twinge of unease with a prospective candidate — but you’re in a hurry, and the individual’s qualifications seem strong on paper. The position has been open for a while and it must be filled, so you override your intuition and hire the person. That is how so many hiring mistakes are made. Or you’re talking to your child and, distracted by other thoughts or a text you just received, you ignore a little niggle about something she was saying — or was not saying.

Sometimes what your intuitive response signals is that you need more information. But our modern, hyperconnected world throws up roadblock after roadblock between us and our intuition. It can get buried under a groaning email in- box, the constant chirping of our smartphones, or our running from appointment to appointment, stressed and burned out. If our intuitive voice had the same strength of signal bars our phones do, we’d often see that we’re out of range of our wisdom.

“The longer we wait to defend our intuitions, the less we will have to defend,” Gary Klein writes. “We are more than the sum of our software programs and analytical methods, more than the databases we can access, more than the procedures we have been asked to memorize. The choice is whether we are going to shrink into these artifacts or expand beyond them.”

For me, the easiest way to lose touch with my intuition is to be sleep deprived. As we saw in the Well-Being section, sleep deprivation lowers not just our attention span, focus, and memory, it also affects our emotional intelligence, self esteem, and empathy toward others. And when we’re sleep deprived we’re more likely to cross ethical lines, because lack of sleep depletes our self- control. Our behavior and our character are not set in stone — they can be affected by how recharged and centered we are.

Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can help us to still the noise of the world so we can listen to our inner voice. During my pregnancies with Christina and Isabella, I practiced yoga every day. It was a discipline I inherited from my mother, who could stand on her head for what seemed like hours when we were growing up in Athens. So it was a kind of family tradition, though one I rebelled against before finally embracing it. In the concentration and relaxation, the inner discipline and outer postures, I feel aligned, a balance that stays with me long after the yoga mats are rolled away.

One of the people who helped popularize meditation and yoga in the West was Paramahansa Yogananda. Here’s how he put the need to take care of our intuitive inner selves in his 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi: “Intuition is soul guidance, appearing naturally in man during those instants when his mind is calm. Nearly everyone has had the experience of an inexplicably correct ‘hunch,’ or has transferred his thoughts effectively to another person. The human mind, free from the static of restlessness, can perform through its antenna of intuition all the functions of complicated radio mechanisms sending and receiving thoughts, and tuning out undesirable ones.”

This was the book that Steve Jobs had asked to be given out at his memorial. Jobs had spent some time in India and was particularly taken with the role of intuition in our lives. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world,” Jobs said. “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Intuition is about connections — but connections that aren’t obvious and that can’t be reasoned into existence. Our intuition connects us both to our inner selves and to something larger beyond ourselves and our lives. But it’s incredibly easy to become disconnected from it. And with the pressures and pace of modern life, without deliberate effort, it’s more likely than not that we will stay disconnected. Our intuition is like a tuning fork that keeps us in harmony — if we learn to listen. It helps us live more of our lives from that still center in us that Marcus Aurelius called our “inner citadel.”

What is beyond doubt is that we spend most of our life outside that citadel. The key is course correcting. The ability to do that, and recognize that we need to, are skills we can learn and get better at simply through practice. Indeed, we can learn to course correct faster and faster, and bring ourselves back to that place of stillness, imperturbability, and loving — until it becomes second nature to return quickly to what is our true nature.

In that quiet center there is perspective and balance and a recognition of what really matters. I sadly saw this unfold when, in his seventies, my father began to lose his eyesight until — and this, he said, was his greatest regret — he could no longer tell his two granddaughters apart. He had survived a German concentration camp, years of financial hardship, divorce, and myriad disappointments. He had a brilliant intellect and the soul of a poet, but also an erratic temper and a love affair with gambling and drinking. When his diabetes led to macular degeneration and he was unable to read or write, he was devastated. These had been the great passions he thought would occupy his later years. Instead, he was forced to turn inward. And, as my sister put it, “Inside him was a neglected garden that had not been watered or weeded for a long, long time, with a gate to his heart firmly closed. If we could read the sign on the gate, it would probably say ‘No entry — explosive materials inside.’ ” There were brief moments when he would let his guard down and let the gate open a little, but then it would promptly close shut. It took something as tragic as losing his eyesight before he could start tending his inner garden.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 130–139