Trusting Your Instincts: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

“Our first natural instincts are not always great. They’re just kind of cheap, and a little selfish, and a little repetitive…you [learn] how to sift through that first layer.” – Amy Poehler

The hard truth about intuition: it isn’t always spot on.

Amy Poehler recently spoke with Charlie Rose about her new memoir, Yes Please. In discussing her early love for acting, she also touched on the process of honing her now highly praised improvisational and comedic skills. Among timing and how to work with others, she mentioned learning how to question – and sometimes go against – your first instinct.

The gut vs research, gut vs metrics, gut vs etc., arguments have always been the same, and each side has value. It’s safe to say that constantly leaving your instincts at the door would be foolish (do NOT eat that gas station sushi). But solely relying on them won’t guarantee a win every time either.

Observation, research, testing, absorption – all of those things should be part of what we regularly do to better our decisions and spark new ideas. In fact, your instincts can be sculpted by that legwork. Just like a comedian’s timing or a novelist’s choice of words, an innate understanding of your brand is crucial, but so is practice, practice, practice.

As I thought about my own personal and professional goals for this new year, Poehler’s description of gut reactions stuck with me. How can we avoid falling into the trap of putting forth cheap, selfish, and repetitive work? And what do those adjectives, in this context, really mean?

“They’re just kind of cheap”

That one stung a little. But how well-thought-out are our natural instincts?

We trust ourselves, but we’re not always exercising our brains to their fullest capacities or entertaining the idea that someone else might have a better solution. Those scenarios take time and investment. Often, we’ve been trained to churn out what we think will work well, quickly.

Don’t cheapen your outcomes by only choosing the “free” advice that comes from your head. Sure, it’s easy and it’s worth something, but by not investigating other options – whether you do that by seeking opinions and/or help from your coworkers, reading up on case studies, a/b testing, etc. – you rob your results from the richness they could possess.

“a little selfish”

Instincts, by definition, are personal. But personal preference often clouds what’s best for your client or brand. In a recent article on choosing logos, product strategist Emilie Futterman describes the importance of trusting the designer, knowing what your brand (not you, personally) needs in visual representation, and seeking the right opinions. Not until the end of the article does she mention letting your gut weigh in on the decision. And that’s intentional, because the entire creative process ultimately influences your intuition.

“Although the vast amount of insight you have accumulated can be overwhelming, the brain is designed to recognize patterns within blocks of information in order to process it better. As such, you have essentially been training your intuition to make the correct logo choice since you embarked on the journey.”

You, yourself, won’t be consuming that end result. Your customers will. And a well-defined and practiced process can help prevent you from making a selfish decision that could impact whether your efforts succeed or fail.

“and a little repetitive”

Who doesn’t love comfort? More importantly, who doesn’t love hiding in the comfort of a formula that works? Maybe you’ve acquired consistent clientele with the same sales pitch. You already know that consistent web design patterns work. Maybe your social media plan has met all of your minimum requirements. An achievement is an achievement. Kudos. But what else can you do? What can you do that you don’t know how to do yet or just haven’t been exposed to? Probably, a hell of a lot.

Instincts don’t always have to be uncomfortable, but formulas can deafen your inner voice in lieu of security. Staying in a comfortable space has its perks, but after a while, your audience will get bored, your coworkers will get bored, and you will get bored. Break the cycle of repetitive output by attending a workshop, asking a “best at” coworker for a little tutelage, or just give something else a shot and see where it goes. You’ll retrain yourself to think more about untapped possibilities rather than a predetermined payoff, even if it takes a major leap of faith.

“You [learn] how to sift through that first layer.”

Questioning and pushing your instincts isn’t, itself, intuitive. As Poehler explained, it’s something you learn how to do. But in thinking about where you want to go and what you hope to accomplish in this new year, keep in mind the notion of dusting off (not chucking) your gut reactions.

By adding a little outside perspective, you may take your goals to new heights.

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