A while back I was reading Working Knowledge in which Davenport wrote “Intuition is compressed knowledge.” That phrase stuck with me as a true thing.
Now Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking shows how right– and how wrong– that can be. I don’t have to tell you to buy it: it’s already number two on Amazon’s bestsellers list (after the yet-to-be-published Harry Potter book. Someday somebody tell me how that can be so). It’s a wonderful exploration of one of my favorite themes, our gut reactions, and definitely a must-buy. While the prose is not quite as elegant as The Tipping Point’s, it’s still a deftly written and compelling book.
It’s got me thinking once again about the care and feeding of our gut. In January’s HBR, they reprint Peter Drucker’s classic article Managing Oneself (also available in the wonderful collection Harvard Business Review on Managing Your Career) which gives us a hint on how to make that possible…
In this article, Drucker says
“The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised. The feedback analysis showed me, for instance — and to my great surprise — that I have an intuitive understanding of technical people, whether they are engineers or accountants or market researchers. “
Although he sees it mainly as a way of getting to know himself, it is also a practice that is changing him. That “intuition” he speaks of is just “compressed experience” reinforced by his tracking practices, and by by tracking each decision, he is training his gut to become smarter and smarter.
Our metaphorical gut is like our real one. Everything we feed our gut makes us who we are. Spinach and steak, one thing. Taco Bell and Coke, another. Hemmingway and Gladwell, one thing. Spiderman and Rose Tremain, another. (before you start screaming, I read all of these).
When I want to improve my writing, the first thing I do is change my reading. When I was younger, I used to write exactly like whomever I was reading. Now my influences are varied enough that I don’t unconsciously mimic voice anymore, but I do notice the level of effort rises to the quality of the materials I consume. After a week of reading the New Yorker, I’m using complete sentences once again.
Gladwell talks in Blink about how John Bargh did a set of studies in which people who took tests in which words reinforcing politeness or suggesting old age were embedded. Participants actually had their behavior changed afterwards (to the point that people exposed to old-age words actually walked more slowly, as if they were old). The implications this has on how we care for our guts are eye opening. What price are you paying for a night of American Idol?
As humans, we are naturally adaptable. We can ignore that and let the world have its way with us, or we can harness it and become our best selves.