Should you “go with your gut?” Listen to your heart and not your head? Follow your intuition? Yes – and no. Your emotions are easily confused with your intuition. But they are not the same. Understanding the difference can help you make better decisions and discover new opportunities while avoiding choices that will derail you.
You’ve heard it a million times – use your intuition. You’ve probably read a story or two about the guy who went with his gut and discovered the perfect investment opportunity, or chose the right job offer while turning down the seemingly better deal from the company that later went bankrupt.
But you probably also know someone who “followed their heart” and paid for it dearly. You may have personally experienced a situation where you felt sure of something on an intuitive level, only to find out you were wrong.
Why do some people thrive by accessing their intuition, discovering great opportunities and making great decisions, while others wind up going down paths they wish they hadn’t?
Because some of us truly are relying on our intuition, while others are relying on their emotions disguised as intuition. Intuition and emotion are often confused. But they are not the same, and knowing the difference can reap untold rewards.
Intuition vs. Emotion
Some describe intuition as a process of listening to your emotions, of going with how something feels rather than using a logical head-centered approach. This is wrong – or at least wrong without understanding the larger context of intuition and emotions.
It’s hard to imagine Einstein, Oprah Winfrey or Steve Jobs without the quality of intuition. Each in their own way achieved outsized success by accessing something well beyond facts and information.
Even Einstein, operating in such a head-centered field as physics, famously developed his theories of relativity in part through a thought experiment in which he imagined what it would feel like to travel at the speed of a light beam.
Indeed, Einstein said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” Steve Jobs similarly said, “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect” and credited intuition as the secret to his success.
And Oprah? Says the “Queen of All Media,” “I've trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life. And the only time I've made mistakes is when I didn't listen.”
Einstein, Steve Jobs, Oprah and so many others among the super-successful are accessing something decidedly different from emotion. Yet, as Oprah explains, intuition “is more a feeling than a voice.” But emotions also are feelings. So how do you tell them apart?
The stock market provides perhaps the clearest example of the difference. Ask anyone who invests in stocks and they will tell you that a fundamental principle of making money in the stock market is to buy low and sell high.
In fact, this is exactly what Warren Buffett does. He hunts for bargains, buying stocks when they are selling for less than he thinks they should, to watch them rise time and again.
So if it’s that simple, then why aren’t the masses who confidently proclaim “buy low, sell high” making money like Buffett does? Why do so many who faithfully invoke this mantra lose money?
Quite simply, because Buffett uses his intuition while the masses resort to emotion.
Emotions – the ones that derail us – are typically about ego, fear, or some version of excitement based on wishing things to be a certain way. You access your intuition by moving beyond or ignoring those emotions. Intuition is a feeling, as Oprah says – but it is a feeling that is on the other side of your emotions.
The typical investor will become fearful when his stock begins to go down, and his emotion of fear will often cause him to sell at a loss, without weighing whether the decline is temporary or not.
The same investor will then discover that a stock is “hot,” follow his emotion of wanting to make a lot of money and wanting to jump on the bandwagon with everyone else, and wind up buying the stock near its peak – only to watch it decline. He may truly believe in buying low and selling high, but his emotions are causing him to do the opposite.
Meanwhile, Buffett’s philosophy is “Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.” He emphatically does not listen to the stock forecasters who breathlessly gush about a stock’s potential and frequently get it wrong. Nor does he listen to those inner emotions that derail other investors.
As he has said, “Failure comes from ego, greed, envy, fear, imitation” – which are precisely the emotions that will derail you and that are distinct from intuition. To be sure, Buffett also uses his head, taking in a lot of informatiaon and utilizing a well-honed method for analyzing information. But all of his information and analysis sits on a foundation of bypassing misleading emotions in order to access the intuition on the other side.
The emotion/intuition distinction works for far more than picking stocks. It’s a critical distinction for everything in your life – from choosing career paths to choosing life partners to assessing financial opportunities to virtually every decision that will come your way.
The pattern is clear – get wrapped up in your emotions and you’ll inevitably get derailed. Find that intuitive feeling that lies beyond your emotions and you’ll access critically important information that you didn't notice before.
How to Access Your Intuition
Intuition, at its heart, is the ability to focus in a specific way in order to access previously unavailable information. Although you cannot force intuition to appear, there are several steps you can take that will make it more likely to show up when you need it:
1. Feed your intuition with information. Warren Buffett takes in a lot of information about a company before deciding whether to purchase its stock. Einstein conducted his ride-on-a-lightbeam and several other thought experiments only after learning certain principles of physics to which he could apply his vivid imagery. Steve Jobs knew a thing or two about technology.
Essentially, your intuition needs something to go on. It’s unlikely to come up with solutions in a vacuum. You need to feed it information. Once your intuition has sufficient information, it can access new information, connections or solutions that weren’t apparent before.
But first, it needs the information. If you are deciding what course of action to take, first gather as much information you can. Your intuition will thank you for it and pay you back accordingly.
2. Allow your mind to go quiet. As you likely already know, to access your intuition, you need to clear away the noise – the noise of both your thoughts and emotions. To access my intuition, I find a quiet place, free of external distractions. I turn off the ringer on my phone.
I next breath slowly and deeply for a minute or two. Then I will spend a few minutes observing my thoughts and feelings – just watching them, like watching a movie or listening to a soundtrack.
Finally, I search for the silence. This is a critical step. Notice that there is an underlying silence. All of your thoughts and emotions arise from that silence, exist for a time, and then return to that silence. The thoughts and emotions come and go, but the silence is always there if you listen for it.
I will literally ask myself, “where is the silence?” Then I will actively notice the silence that exists alongside my thoughts. The more you can enter the silence, the quieter your mind will become.
3. Recognize your intuition by asking yourself if you are feeling an emotion. Once you quiet your mind, distinguishing your intuition from your emotions is the most critical step. If you are trying to make a decision, for example, you might ask yourself which of two choices you should make. And once your mind is quiet, an answer may present itself.
Now the real work begins. The key is to know whether the answer, the path you now want to take, is based on real intuition, or merely on a derailing emotion. Simply ask yourself what you are feeling, what is behind this decision you want to make. When your mind is quiet, it is fairly easy to notice what feeling is attached to the decision.
You might notice that your decision is driven by fear, or a need to impress someone or not let someone down, or a desire for things to turn out a certain way or to be like someone else. All of these are feelings of emotion. And very likely, if your decision is driven by them, you’ll regret it.
However, you may not notice any of these feelings of emotion. You may notice a different feeling – a feeling where there is no fear or external pressure or wishful desire – a feeling solely that a decision is right for you. If that feeling is all that is there, and the usual emotions are absent (or at least not the driving force), then you have found your intuition.
As with anything, your ability to access your intuition and to distinguish it from your emotions will get better with practice. Begin this process with small decisions. Once you develop a track record and learn to trust your intuition, you can start applying it to bigger issues in your life.