Instincts, intuition, and North Korea

The consequences of the decisions we make each day often last much longer than we might expect. Big decisions, little decisions. Personal decisions, political decisions. Carefully-examined decisions, whimsical decisions.

They all set the stage for the future.

The President today is setting off fireworks as he tweets his comments on the latest nuclear provocation out of North Korea. In a bizarre coincidence of timing, a bomb dropped on Germany in WWII is being defused today -- but only after 60,000 people have been evacuated as a precaution.

In Germany? Decisions made in the past lingering and affecting us more than 70 years later.

In North Korea? We may be setting the stage for the next 70

This is why decision-making itself is one of the most important skills that we under-value. Sure, students in business school will study "decision techniques" and learn how to perform a cost-benefit analysis. Philosophy majors will study whether to view all choices as a categorical imperative. And, along the way, most of us will get some religious or cultural exposure to the importance of the Golden Rule.

But when it comes to actually executing the process of making decisions -- finding and absorbing information, evaluating it, weighing the outcomes, and following through -- most of us probably haven't formed a rigorous, reliable process for making sure we get it right more often than we do not.

Instead, we find plenty of examples where "gut instinct" is celebrated -- where someone's decisions appeared to come from deep inside the lizard brain.

But instincts aren't good enough. All animals have instincts. Following our instincts is nothing more reliable or sophisticated than a dog chasing a squirrel.

That's where instincts are different from intuition. Intuition is the result of practicing something often, studying it carefully, being self-aware of the process, and most importantly, applying unrelenting self-criticism after the fact. It's no real use to make lots of decisions -- even if some of them turn out to be right -- if we don't look back on those decisions and figure out what we can do the next time we encounter a similar problem.

Instincts are sometimes right -- but they should only be our decision-making tools of last resort. 

Difficult decisions are underway and yet to come. Some will involve what to do about North Korea. Others will involve entirely different problems. The consequences could easily last for 70 years to come.

This is no time to trust our instincts. It's time for every bit of serious thinking we can find.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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