Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

your gut has shit for brains

“I've been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

― Nick HornbyHigh Fidelity

The suggestion is something like this: if you put in your 10,000 hours of skills practice, you'll achieve a kind of expertise that allows you to rely almost entirely on your intuition to make decisions about what you do, and what you should do next.

It's not hard to understand our cultural glorification of the gut--the brilliant instinctive decision made under pressure plays into our collective myths about the talented loner who leads the way to the future.

Still, I've got problems, just on the face: trusting your gut tends to bias you toward your first option--you're less likely to look fairly at the costs and benefits of your alternatives.

More importantly, though: the thing we call intuition is a quiet form of pattern recognition, the mind tracing pictures onto situations to form a map of the way forward. Back when people's idea of a fun Saturday night was a round of Pictionary on the wall of the cave, if you saw the shadow of a sabretoothed tiger a little pattern recognition engine would kick on in your brain: you'd compare that to your past experiences of seeing a shadow of a tiger, remember that the last time around it didn't end too well, and you'd high-tail it out. That was really effective for us when we were powering cars with our feet, but today we live in a world that's faster, more interrelated, and more complex.


Given the explosion in the amount of information we all have to handle, expecting our brains to pull useful decision-making signal from the noise (on top of remembering to buy milk) can be an unneccessary tax on our attention and a source of anxiety. If you're working in a group you'll quickly find that attempting to force your fuzzily-understood vision onto the group because you believe in the power of your instinct, you'll be cutting off new ideas, killing morale on the team, and undermining group cohesion.

Still, obviously--intuition is valuable. The key is evaluation--measuring your instinct against the world, and against other people's information, to see whether the map your brain has drawn onto the world bears any relation to reality. Trust your gut to churn. Trust your gut to be generative, and point you in new directions. But never stop there. Keep measuring. Compare your instinct with the information other people bring to the table. Keep the discussion open.

That way, when you step off into the wild blue yonder of your final decision, you'll know you're acting on more than a shadow on the wall.