“What’s your gut telling you?” my friend asked years ago when I was mulling over a job offer. The job paid decently well but required me to stop writing anywhere else. On one hand, I wouldn’t have to worry about what next month’s income would be—an ongoing concern when you’re a full-time freelancer—but on the other, my writing would be severely limited.
“My gut?” I replied. “I have no idea.” Aside from the occasional gurgle, my gut is silent in these situations. But when I’m truly stuck on something, I turn to the one thing that always helps me unravel life’s greatest obstacles: reruns of Frasier.
In one episode, Frasier is deciding between two women he wants to date: Faye or Cassandra. He’s tried all logic and reasoning to figure out who would be a better match when his brother Niles suggests flipping a coin.
“Ooh, this is the sort of thing that makes a woman feel really special,” Daphne says.
“The decision cannot be made that simply,” Frasier insists.
But anyway, they flip. Heads, Faye; tails, Cassandra. After Niles tosses the coin in the air and catches it, he points at Frasier. “Admit it. You want me to say one name more than the other.”
“You’re right,” Frasier says. “Cassandra.”
It’s not an exercise in chance, it’s one in intuition. The idea is, there’s a little voice in your head guiding you down one path versus another. And maybe that voice gets buried in our overly logical thought processes. But if you can learn to listen to that voice, perhaps you can make better decisions. At least, this is how we tend to think of how intuition works. It’s that coin-toss-revealing moment.
Intuition is an especially important tool for multipods. We’re constantly juggling projects and pursuits and we’re often deciding on the next career move or figuring out our ideal work model. When making these decisions, we can’t always rely on typical career advice and we don’t always have a deep knowledge of the field we’re considering. What’s more, it can be hard to find a role model because few people are doing the thing we want to do in the way we want to do it. Basically, our goals, backgrounds and skills are so customized that we often need to rely on our own intuition to guide us through big decisions.
But the coin toss moment never seems to work on me because my answer would be different and random each time. For whatever reason, intuition eludes me—maybe you feel the same way. So how can we get better at finding our intuition and listening to it?
What is intuition, anyway?
It’s hard to define intuition in the first place because, by definition, intuition has to do with that which is indefinable. In a 2016 study, researchers present intuition as our ability to make decisions or perceive information “without rational, analytical thought or inference.” It almost seems counterproductive, then, to use any kind of analytical thought to understand intuition. But if we want to hone it, we probably need to define it in the first place, so let’s give it a try.
Intuition seems relatively simple when you sum it up as “that little voice in your head” or “a gut feeling.” But it’s easy to confuse other feelings—fear, desire, passion—for intuition, and vice versa. Before one of my first speaking gigs, I had a strong feeling something terrible would happen. I debated skipping the flight and canceling the engagement because my intuition was urging me to stay home. But I went anyway. And everything was fine. Later, I realized it was simply anxiousness disguising itself as an intuitive bad omen. If the plane would have crashed, it would’ve been intuition. Since nothing happened, it was simply anxiety.
To me, getting better at intuition means getting better at trusting my feelings and perceptions even when I can’t fully define them.
We often mistakenly think of intuition as something we simply feel like doing in the moment. But intuition isn’t just about what you want right now, it’s also about what you know will be good for you in the long run (which sounds an awful lot like self-care). For example, when I have 20 emails that I haven’t responded to in weeks, it’s easy to convince myself that my intuition is urging me to rewatch the entire first season of Insecure instead. Sure, a TV break could be good for me if I’m particularly burnt-out that week. But that could just as easily be desire—something that feels good in the moment but could make me more anxious later.
We can confuse passion for intuition, too. Maybe you quit a project to start working on another one because your intuition pulls you in that direction. But then your intuition turns out to be momentary passion and excitement, or what productivity culture calls “shiny object syndrome.” You can end up with a lot of unfinished projects that way.
So if intuition isn’t simply desire, passion, anxiousness, or fear, what is it? In that same study, researchers defined intuition as “nonconscious emotional information” from the body or the brain—an instinctual feeling or sensation. They forced this feeling by showing participants a subliminal message and then asking them to complete a task. The participants who saw a more positive subliminal image, say a baby or a puppy, performed better on tasks than the control group. The idea was that intuition is our ability to pick up on imperceptible information and put it to good use.
Maybe intuition—nonconscious emotional information—is just the word we use for feelings we don’t quite understand or at least can’t put into words. To me, getting better at intuition means getting better at trusting my feelings and perceptions even when I can’t fully define them.
How intuition changes as we get older
I once tried the coin toss trick on my friend’s kid, who couldn’t decide between the giant gumball or the peanut butter cup in a candy store—she only had money for one or the other. So I flipped the coin like Niles. Then I pointed to her and said, “Admit it. You want me to say one candy over the other. Which is it?” She looked at me, crossed her brow, and replied, “Both. I want both.” Children are immune to our either/or way of thinking.
In a New York Times piece, author Judi Ketteler explores how intuition changes as we age. “As you get older, you start developing conflicting motivations,” she explains, and this can make it harder to listen to what you really want.
When we’re children, intuition is easy. We want ice cream, we know that. As an adult, you’re not sure if you want ice cream. You’d love a scoop of rocky road, but you’d also love to not feel sick when it collides with the big plate of spicy tikka masala you just ate. You really shouldn’t have the ice cream, probably. It’s too cold for ice cream, anyway. Is the ice cream store even open? And will the employees judge you for coming in the sixth time this week? The older you get, the more complicated life—and therefore intuition—becomes.
Learning to get better at intuition
On the phone with a friend the other day, I noticed she seemed short and dismissive. And it bothered me the entire day. Rather than chalk it up to me being sensitive—something I would have done in the past—I told her how I felt, objectively. We talked through it, she told me how she was feeling, and we were able to pinpoint our miscommunication.
The old me would have ignored the problem: shut up, feelings! But learning to accept the way I feel has played a big part in trusting my gut. All too often, we tell ourselves we’re being too sensitive in situations, that we need to move on and suck it up. But invalidating your feelings makes it damn near impossible to listen to your gut. If getting better at intuition means getting better at trusting your indefinable feelings and perceptions, you have to learn to accept those feelings in the first place.
When you ignore your feelings enough during the day, they catch up with you in your sleep. Earlier this year, I kept having a dream that I was rushing to make a flight that I missed every time. I would wake up feeling disoriented, anxious, and depressed. When I tried processing the dream by writing about it, I realized I felt overwhelmed and burnt-out in my career, like I was constantly chasing something that was always beyond my reach. I needed to take a break. Tools like journaling, dream interpretation, tarot, and meditation can be immensely helpful for digging into that “nonconscious emotional information,” as researchers call it.
More than anything else, these tools have been helpful to help reset my brain and get out of the producer-consumer cycle. When you’re stuck in that “make-money-buy-shit” loop, intuition is tough. Your brain is focused on surface activities that have to do with productivity and consumption, like checking off a to-do list or filling up your Amazon cart, which feel good in the moment but can make it hard to tap into anything else. For me, birdwatching helps break this cycle. So does making more time for awe. And finding hobbies you’re not good at and therefore have no hope of monetizing.
I never did take that job. For perfectly rational reasons as well as reasons I couldn’t put into words, I knew it wasn’t the right decision. But life is a series of trial and error. Sometimes we get things right and chalk it up to intuition. Sometimes we get it wrong and blame it on not listening to our intuition. But who’s to say intuition is always right? In Frasier, it never works out with Cassandra. And later in the series, when he dates Faye, it doesn’t work out with her, either.
Maybe the effectiveness of our intuition is limited by the fact that we’re human and we make mistakes. All we can do is make the best decisions with the information we have—even if we can’t quite put it into words.
Multipods, what’s your take on intuition? How does it guide your decisions? Do you feel like you’re in touch with it, and if so, how did you learn to listen to it?