Instincts are a thoroughly explored concept in business, commonly held in high regard as the unseen drivers of innovation. However, while usually well-intentioned, instincts are problematic — in fact, you could argue that they are even the, “Cousins of Hubris.” 

Much of this notion comes from a dangerous human tendency in idea creation. When considering new plans, we often default to a flawed sense of self-confidence; we assume we know more about the subject in question than we do. In other words, we let our initial instincts take complete control without a shred of introspective analysis.  

The harsh reality is that, no, most of us do not have the baseline knowledge required to initiate an idea through instinct alone, and this has been the case for nearly every prominent innovator in history. Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Bill Gates built their transcendent ideas with hardly any preexisting knowledge. They challenged themselves to change the world without a roadmap. 

To generate true, lasting success, you must reject preconceptions of your current knowledge, mute cognitive biases, and reengineer yourself to become more inquisitive and resourceful. 

Do not trust your first instinct

Regardless of what it is, your first instinct should be questioned as soon as an idea is born. There is no need to be ashamed of this impulse. It is the product of an ancient survival mechanism that has endured in our genetic wiring: the constant hunt for what we need to help ourselves. In this case, the knowledge to bring our ideas to fruition. These primitive desires may have sustained our species to its current state, but today, we can run into trouble when we merge them with existing emotional biases. This, in part, is because our ideas have become more complex and contingent upon well-informed, nuanced thought. 

Renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman offers a simple yet crucial method for questioning early gut intuition. Ask yourself: Does the area you are focusing on present some semblance of regularity? Is the area one in which you have applicable experience? Have you already received immediate feedback for prior work in this area? If you cannot answer yes to all three questions, you should take the time to reconsider your options more rationally.

I would take Kahneman’s method a step further with a fourth question: if you claim to have relevant past experience or at least working prerequisite knowledge, ask yourself if you are overestimating that knowledge within the context of the matter at hand, and answer honestly. To build ideological self-awareness, you must recognize that your credentials — no matter how prestigious — can produce a facade of readiness if given a free pass. 

Questions are not badges of shame

As leaders, we often feel the need to be masters of information when we should really be thinking like children. What I mean is do not just question your instincts, do it with a child-like curiosity, abandoning the habitual fear of embarrassment. 

There is an antiquated stigma surrounding questions in business: The underlying belief that being inquisitive is a sign of vulnerability and stupidity. In reality, childish questioning is an essential catalyst for personal (and professional) development. When you look at a concept or issue from an ignorant vantage point, you are forced to ask a multitude of questions, which produces an even greater multitude of answers and enhances your baseline knowledge bit by bit. By letting knee-jerk instincts take control, we stand to bypass this entire process. 

Children embody innocence and objectivity — not to mention an almost total lack of shame — and as a result, they are determined to learn about what they do not understand, often asking new questions in response to answers they have just received. We lose these attributes as we age mainly due to external factors shaping our cognitive biases. I am not saying that business leaders should put their brains into a state of retrograde, but we can learn a lesson or two from harkening back to the days of 10,000 “whys” and “hows.”

Too much intuition leads to too much comfort

Instinct-driven decision-making is almost always synonymous with comfort, which itself is one of the biggest obstacles to success. Going with your gut takes significantly less effort than building an idea from scratch, but it can leave you and your team on a plateau and stunt any hopes of growth beyond what is easy (and obvious).

Comfort is also an indicator of a warped perspective. If we cannot dissect our self-view and tease out folly, we perpetually feel comfortable embracing our flaws and deficiencies instead of fixing them — often without even realizing it. Therefore, you have to be willing to ask yourself questions at every turn, and the motivation for doing so comes from inside, nestled beside the same misguided instincts and biases designed to lead a less vigilant mind astray. 

Success, in this sense, boils down to a choice: Which of these mechanisms will drive your next move, and once you have picked one, why did you do so? If you are thinking in this manner, you are already on your way.