Where good instincts come from

Trust your gut, some say. Don’t overthink it. But good judgment doesn’t emerge from nowhere, as if innate. If it did, at least a few large organizations would be led by exceptional children. That never happens. Judgment evolves from encountering complex situations, over and over, allowing the mind to grasp what varies and what does not from situation to situation. In a word: experience.

Experience alone isn’t enough. Some people never learn. Judgment grows out of reflecting on situations you’ve faced. What you learn from experience, you can apply to future situations in a way that feels natural and unforced, so that it feels like you’re going with your gut. Absent reflection, the benefit of experience is lost.

Experience plus reflection may still not be enough. If you’re like me, reflection can decay into rumination, which is a continuous loop of (usually negative) thinking that lacks an escape into either acceptance or a clear next action. The stuff sleepless nights are made on. When your brain starts looping, you can interrupt it by writing your reflections down.

Writing externalizes that part of the mind. Holding a thought at a distance gives you a view on it – clarifies it, makes suggestions about what to do about it, or maybe makes it disappear altogether. It’s helpful to talk to someone else about your experience, but still: follow that with capturing it in writing.

The logical next step – reading what you’ve written – may not even be necessary. The act of writing seems to change the way we process experience, allowing us to better internalize what we’ve mined from it.

They say failure is a great teacher. Yes – of course we want to pick ourselves up and profit from failure. But what about learning from success, or mixed results, or relatively minor day-to-day stuff? Failure tends to be charged with emotion, which intensifies memories associated with it, so in a way we learn from failure naturally, while lower-voltage daily experience fades quickly. Experience, including failure, is a great teacher, but we have to show up to class with a pencil.

Some people may be gifted with great gut instincts. The rest of us have experience, refined through reflection, crystallized by capture.

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