I absolutely hate hunches.

An enormous amount of your subconscious mind is your enemy. Bent on your destruction. Your impulses are generally horrid. Your instincts are bigoted, biased, lazy, hostile, egotistical, defensive, greedy and craven. The Mr. Hyde lurking within all of us, the personification of all of those traits, is an opponent to be constantly battled against.

So why would I ever trust sudden bursts of “insight” from that creature?

Here’s the problem. Human brains don’t have good self-diagnostic capacity. Gut can give me a sudden flash of epiphany that’s entirely based in superstition and that would lead me to ruin if acted upon, and I have no way of differentiating it from a brilliant insight gleaned in a moment of connection between multiple thoughts in my higher reasoning. They “feel” identical.

I rely on those higher insights. That’s the problem.

Usually, when people say “trust, but verify” they’re referring to outside sources. But I apply that to all of my own “bright ideas,” just in case they’re not so bright after all. But like I said, we’re not good at self-diagnostic – so how do I do it?

Here are a few of my methods:

  1. Have a few people that you’ve generally vetted as being pretty smart, and make sure you’re open with them about your biases. This can be tougher than it seems. Often the very biases we’re trying to shake are biases that it’s pretty socially damning to have, so this person has to be trustworthy. And YOU have to have the courage to admit your flaws to them. But once you do this, you can say to that person, “Hey, this idea has been really persistently knocking at my brain, but I’m worried it might come from my high level of risk aversion regarding relationships. Can you tell me what you think?” That person can then adjust their opinion of the idea in a vacuum based on what they already know about your particular tendencies to one side or the other of any particular line and help you correct for it.
  2. Time Delay. One method I’ve discovered that seems to be pretty good at sifting the higher insights from the base impulses is time. No matter the level of conviction with which they first hit my brain, the vile impulses fade much more quickly than the truly good ideas. If I have what seems like a “good idea” but actually is coming from that place of fear or rage or anything else, it won’t last long. If the idea is still nagging at me more than a week later, it has a good chance of being grounded in something beneficial to me. As a result, I put all “sparks” away from the tinder. I don’t act on them. If they’re still burning from internal fuel a week later, I’ll give them more serious consideration.
  3. Measure against principles. Mr. Hyde didn’t have any rules to obey. The worst of the damage he inflicted might have been mitigated if there were some internal laws that he couldn’t break. We have some version of this imparted by our society – we have the impulse to steal something or hurt someone to get what we want, but we deny that impulse because of a prior principle we’ve considered. But we fall short – the number of vile ideas we will have far exceeded what most people have built principled walls against in advance.

(There’s a great bit by the hilarious comedian Burt Kreischer where he’s telling the story of how he got tempted into robbing a train. He suddenly goes on a tangent about how he’d never cheat on his wife because one day he was having a beautiful morning with his family, and he realized how good it all was, so he had a conversation with himself about how important it was to never ever mess that up, and what he would do if he were ever tempted by another woman, etc. He then returns to the main story by saying “Here’s the problem, I never had a conversation with myself about robbing a train.”)

Hunches are easy little monsters clawing up your back and whispering what you want to hear into your ear. Make sure you have a rigorous machine built into your life that allows you to test all of your impulses. Some will come from places of higher insight and be gold – but just like prospectors looking for the real thing in the riverbeds of the American West, there’s a lot of dirt to sift through.

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