Inarticulate Instincts

I have a problem: I am very lucky. Stuff just seems to work out, without any great effort on my part. I believe this has something to do with decisions my subconscious is making, and how they guide me through life. I place great trust in my instincts, though I’ll be damned if I could articulate my thought processes to you. This has been a great source of contention between me and the people who manage and work with me. Even my father recently said to me “I get frustrated that you don’t back up your political viewpoints with data.” Nonetheless, I trust that my instincts see the big picture.

Similarly, I know several extremely talented people whose advice I implicitly trust, even if I always play the devil’s advocate with them. If I ask them to explain their advice, they always fail. Maybe they will manage to articulate some of their thought processes, but I get the feeling they’re lying anyway, or at least not telling the whole story. Good advice always has hidden virtues. Their instincts know this, but that information never bubbles into the foreground.

Not everyone has good instincts, however. Some people think of the most insane and inappropriate solutions when confronted with a problem. Others propose things that seem like great ideas on the surface, but often fail to work. Further, there are plenty of examples where I will make a proposal by instinct, and it turns out to be totally wrong. On the other hand, there are examples where someone will have a choice of solutions to a problem and I will say “solution B is better than A and C”, which is true, but only in hindsight down the road. What to do?

I’ve been wrestling with this issue since I was born, because I’m especially bad at articulating why I feel certain ways. Recently, I started reading the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, and I hope it will provide tools for coping in a world where great decisions come from the mind’s subconscious and without any explanation why.

So, actually, I have two problems. Dear reader, please help me answer these questions:

  1. How do you accept advice from people if they can’t explain why?
  2. How do you give advice if you can’t explain why?

The answer may lie in experience and history. If you haven’t built up a lot of trust, you may need to say “Please, just give me a chance, and let the results speak for themselves.” If you’re experienced, you can let previous successes be your explanation. Discussing this feels weird because we live in a “why why why” world and I work at a company that prides itself on being data-driven and explicitly not opinion-driven.

Perhaps one reason agile software development is successful is because it enables individuals to use their raw talents to work towards an understood goal, without an overemphasis on ceremony, explanation, and conscious thought. Humans are amazing pattern recognition engines, and harnessing that power is surely beneficial. Put humans in teams, and you get to harness the benefits of our social machinery too. Ask these same humans to clearly articulate every decision they make before they’re allowed to make it, and I guarantee you’ll see a tangible reduction in their success rate.

I don’t know the answers, and this is a new train of thought to me. I would love to hear your thoughts.


3 thoughts on “Inarticulate Instincts”

  1. For the first question, I usually rely on some notion of trust, like you were saying. I don’t trust all good friends. I do trust good friends who tend to think like I do, though. This probably reinforces narrow-mindedness. I guess the assumption is that, if I’m going to completely accept what someone else says without question, I want to at least be familiar with the context of the advice and type of thought processes that went into it. On the other hand, I’ll listen to advice from very different types of people, but want some explanation for their advice so I can contextualize it in my own mind somehow.

    For the second, I usually don’t. I always explain why, because I assume people will always be skeptical. If I know someone is really trusting of me anyway, I’d prefer to give them advice about what things to think about in making their decisions rather than what decisions to make.

    I agree with what you say about agile teams, but having too much trust in groups can also cause some problems, I think. Unless you have a really well-structured team with reliable methods for communicating ideas, making decisions, and dealing with conflict, you can end up with people with stronger personalities or more powerful positions calling all the shots.

  2. Oddly enough, I started that book this morning on the bus. Coincidence!

    1. I think you’re right about experience…if you are asking for advice from this person, it’s because you feel that they may have an insight into the situation that you don’t/can’t quite see. You are asking for their advice based on their past experiences, and you know that you generally like/agree with decisions they have made in the past.

    2. The advice you’re giving is probably an accumulation of things you’ve learned on your own or through the experiences of others you trust. It is possible they are only asking for insight into the one part you see, not a definitive answer for what to do (which is a whole other ball game, and that sort of advice probably should have at least a little data). So I guess it’s partially knowing what they want from your advice and limiting your advice to that part.

    But in your business example…if all three solutions are equally unknown in the results, then all the data you could show anyway is essentially made up. (I know, probable based on past behavior…but still made up).

    But then, I’m bad at articulating my reasons behind things, too.

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