Something You Just Know

Instinctive knowing—we all have it. Some know how to put colors together to create paintings that pop. Others, like George Patton, have a particular gut instinct for the mass movement of troops or battlefield strategy. Some know how to arrange furniture for maximum impact. There are actors and accountants who work their magic by the slightest difference in delivery or understanding the topography presented by a sheet of numbers.


Gut instinct is a main driver for so much—it can make the difference between life and death, happiness and making-do, success and so-so, resignation and resilience. The manner in which we pull together seemingly random bits of information to coalesce into a much bigger insight often hinges on an entirely unpredictable flash or tug of creative knowing. We don’t know how we know, we just do. It makes sense to us in a way that others miss, we see something they don’t.


Recently, I read an article about some of the research scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. They’re exploring some highly technical blah blah having to do with a mouse’s brain; it’s all very high falutin’ and important and I’m glad they’re working at it because someone needs to do and it ain’t gonna be me. But, what caught my attention was the portion of the article describing a time when the scientists were chewing the fat and one of them observed that, “science was not an intelligence test.” They discussed how having a keen intuition was as, if not more, important as expertise in physics and math in order to conduct biological research. Even with subjects as objective and sterile-seeming as those which boil down to numbers and equations, the discovery leap is made using intuition. This is where the breakthroughs come; it’s not simply a matter of deductive reasoning.


This philosophy is equally true for us who are re-booting our lives. We already have quirky, little talents that we can’t explain but which come naturally to us. Yes, we may enhance these abilities through practice and expertise we worked hard to gain, but the tipping point comes from a place within. We just know how or when to do things that make all the difference. Take the Homeland Security and Customs agents who process thousands of travelers a day—they may be aware of “certain signs” to watch for, but they also have to make decisions based on instinct. One of the most famous examples I can think of this is the arrest of Ahmad Ressam in December of 1999. Ressam was driving a car full of explosives from Canada to Port Angeles, Washington, with the ultimate goal of bombing the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve—an event known as the Millenium Plot. The immigration pre-clearance specialists had cleared Ressam for entry, but a single US Customs Agent became suspicious; something told her things were not right and she needed to pursue this application further. And, thank goodness she did. Thank goodness she didn’t simply override her gut, placating herself that the pre-clearance guys had ok’ed this one so she didn’t need to bother.


By the same token, we re-booters are urged to act, to explore, to shift gears, to make decisions that we can’t fully explain. It’s not a question of training or expertise or curiosity—it’s something else, entirely. And, when it comes to changing something significant in our lives, whether it’s a career direction, a significant relationship, a re-ordering of our priorities, we must grapple with the uncomfortable fact that we may not be able to understand why we’re doing this. All of a sudden, the things that were important to us are no longer a priority. All of a sudden, we wake up and don’t see the activities or people in our lives in the same light. All of a sudden, our gut is screaming at us that we need to climb through the window, ignoring Doors A, B, and C, entirely.


So, if you’re wrestling with something like this, I want you to keep in mind the examples set by preeminent scientific researchers, generals, artists, and accountants. They can’t fully explain why they are doing what they do, but their example applies equally to our struggles. You won’t always know, so trust your gut.


Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how…The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” Agnes De Mille (1905-1993), Dancer and choreographer




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