Do you have an untrained gut?


An untrained gut is a horrible thing to trust.

I was sitting on the couch talking with a friend about a business he wanted to start. You know, the kind of conversation that goes forever and moves between intense debate and focused collaboration.

That was when I heard the sound – a sound I don’t think I’d heard before that moment.

To contextualize, we were sitting in the living room of my home when we lived on a golf course. Having never lived on a golf course before, I’d spent years learning the sounds that come with it. Sounds like your window breaking. Sounds like a golf ball bouncing off your concrete patio into the neighbor’s backyard (and pool).

But this sound was foreign to me.

I paid it no attention because I used to attribute all unknown sounds to the world of golf (a world I don’t know very well). Beeps, pings, and thumps were all part of my everyday world in that house.

Did you see what I did there?

When I heard something I didn’t recognize, I attributed it to something I did understand and didn’t worry me, because that’s what we all do.

We categorize things. And when we do that, we trust ourselves to do it in a way that’s helpful to us – even when it may not be helpful.

I took a sound I didn’t know, one I’d never heard before, and I attributed it to a class of sounds (golf course related sounds) that were often outside of my home and rarely had a lot of impact in my day to day world.

Then I continued what I’d been doing, without thinking much of it, because I felt like things were going to be just fine.

You could shorten all that and simply say: I trusted my gut.

One time, in a software company…

Years ago I worked with a group of friends to start, build and then sell our software startup to a larger software company. We were a small team and they were huge. They were more than twenty times our size. For a single product!

I’m positive that some products might require hundreds of software engineers to build. But this wasn’t one.

Since we were just recently acquired, and I had stepped into a management role, I found myself talking with one of the other executives.

He said, “I don’t know a lot about building software, but I think our development team is about right.”

I agreed with them. He didn’t know a lot about building software. He was trusting his gut.

But his gut was untrained.

Untrained Guts

You know what I mean when I use the phrase “an untrained gut,” right? It’s when we don’t have the right experiences to align with our internal monitors or sense of what’s right (or wrong).

If you’ve never led a software organization, you’ll likely not know if 100 is the right or wrong number of developers for the product you’re building. And if you come from a large company where it takes 100 people to do anything, your experience will lead you astray.

Just like if you’re sitting on a couch talking to a friend and you mistakenly attribute the sound of your toddler pulling out all of your Tupperware from the bottom shelves of your kitchen cabinets onto the floor to some random golf sound.

You can imagine my surprise when I walked into our kitchen and saw the mess. Our first child had done some serious work all by herself.

You know who didn’t get the same opportunity?

My son, our second child.

Because when I heard that sound again, I had a trained gut, and I knew what was going on – so I stopped what I was doing and rushed in to stop him.

Experiences and Exposure

The whole thing comes down to your experiences. If you’ve had a limited set of experiences and exposure to only certain kinds of people, processes, or events, then you’ll have an untrained gut when you step into other contexts.

Knowing, though, is half the battle. Knowing when you can trust your instincts and when you shouldn’t is a really helpful tool to guide you.

You’ll often hear that your instinct is something you should trust. It’s true, when you’re in the context that has developed over time with experience and exposure.

But it’s wrong when you’re in a new environment or experience. All you have is an untrained gut – and that’s a horrible thing to trust.

So let me ask you this….

  • What are you doing for the very first time?
  • Do you have the exposure to match your efforts?
  • What are you doing to broaden your exposure?

This is the reason I do calls with folks in my afternoons. Because often, a simple call (for just 30-60 minutes) will give them enough exposure to a different set of experiences that will help them see their context in a new way.

But this isn't a pitch to ring me up. Talk to the people around you. Talk to people you can trust. And learn from them. Most importantly, learn from the people with experiences different than your own, so that you can broaden your exposure.