Your Instincts are Wrong

Imagine that you and I are sitting in the living room, hanging out. And suddenly you hear a small sound – a knocking of sorts. Then it's a bit of a sliding sound. I interrupt what you're saying and jump up to head to the kitchen. Why?

Because my instinct tells me that a toddler has opened a cabinet and is starting to play with the items on the bottom shelf. Soon they'll be all over the floor. What did you hear? It's not clear – but one thing is certain: whatever you thought it was, you were wrong. Your instinct was off.

The reason it was off isn't because you're a bad person or because your hearing isn't good. It's just that in your whole life (especially if you don't have kids, or toddlers specifically), you've never heard the sound and you're not prepped for it. Victims of 911 react differently when they hear planes fly overhead. They've developed a new awareness because of their experience. It's possible I hear a plane, but I don't even notice it. I think nothing off it. And in fact, I'm likely to think it's something else when it's only a far off sound.

Trusting your instinct is only good if it's a trained instinct. In my home, I know the sounds that our kids make. I know the sounds downstairs, upstairs and even outside. Because, as a parent of two, I've been through this stuff at least a couple times. The same is true for start-ups, as I've helped start or worked on 5 different ones. I know the distinct “sounds” that they make – even when some situations are far off. Decisions about partnerships. Decisions about outsourcing. Decisions about marketing. Decisions about pricing. Decisions about technology. Decisions about features. You get the idea. Any one of these could make or break an early start-up venture. And yet, the thing I hear most from people starting their own project is the phrase, “Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts.”

And I wish I could reply to them like I can in this post, “Sure, if you'd like to be like the other 75% of start-ups that will fail this year because they too were driven into the ground by decisions made from an untrained instinct.” But no. That's too harsh. So I often reply with, “well, let's see if we can put a framework around that instinct and get a balanced look at the decision.”

So, here is my quick advice – 3 tips – on a framework to help you develop a trained instinct.

First – find a group of people who are on the same road you're on.

Current wisdom says that there is “wisdom in crowds” and even if you're wrong, the crowd may help you make a good call.

Second – find someone, a mentor, a coach, that has been on the road before and successfully navigated it.

They can give you invaluable advice, even if you don't take it.

Third – find someone on the same road that you're on now, who may be just a bit ahead of you.

You don't have to connect, but you need to watch. Look for mistakes you don't want to repeat.

This three-part framework will still let you make your own call, and not turn you into someone else's puppet. It will also sharpen your instincts as time goes on. And at some point, you'll hear a sound, a strange one that someone else will mistake for “nothing” when you'll know it most definitely is something. And then you'll be able to jump up, act quick, and protect what's valuable to you.

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.