Intuition goes by many names. You could call it instinct, gut feeling, or even your subconscious. Many describe it as a quiet voice or subtle tugging at the back of the mind, pulling your conscious self in a particular direction.
While it may sound like something firmly in the realm of spirituality, there have been numerous studies that found scientific evidence for the idea of intuition. Despite this, our culture still teaches us to ignore our intuition, if not dismiss the idea of it entirely.
There are many ways in which we’ve been conditioned to tune out our gut feelings, but perhaps the biggest reason we so often ignore our intuition is that we’ve been actively taught to do so since we were children in school. While creating a public education system that simultaneously teaches over 50 million students every year is no easy task, certain elements of this system can discourage creative thinking that would teach us to draw on our intuition.
While the reasoning behind each of these practices is understandable, each one has the unfortunate side effect of conditioning us to ignore our intuition, resulting in a lack of creativity, self-confidence, and the bravery to take risks.
1. An Overreliance on Tests
Testing is at the heart of our education. In a massive system, you can argue that it provides necessary accountability, a way to make sure students are learning and teachers are teaching. But it also means that ever since childhood, we are imprinted with the idea that there are always right and wrong answers, and that wrong answers are to be avoided at all costs. Worst yet, too many wrong answers can lead to scolding and punishment.
Memorizing the information and then regurgitating it on a test is the safest way to ensure your educational success. But this fear of being wrong, this idea that there is only one correct answer, keeps us from thinking outside of the box. It crushes our creativity, makes us doubt the voice in our head, and leaves us less likely to take risks. In reality, mistakes and wrong answers are an essential part of learning and exploration. In the timeless words of Edison, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that do not work.” Being open to making mistakes and learning from them is one of life’s most important lessons.
Some of the biggest inventions in history came about not because the inventor answered the right questions, but because they listened to their intuition after making a mistake. The discovery of penicillin started with a scientist leaving his lab messy when he went on vacation, and the pacemaker was invented when the incorrect resistor was applied during an experiment to record the human heart. Our intuition can even speak to us directly, like when the theory of relativity came to Einstein in a dream. Rather than chastising themselves and dismissing their mistakes or dreams as nothing but a wrong answer, these scientists listened to their intuition and embraced the mistake, and ended up changing the lives of millions.
2. The Insistence to “Try Harder”
In our culture, effort is often seen as the difference between success and failure. The same is true in how we encourage kids to approach their education. Didn’t pass that test? You must not have tried hard enough. Passed it with flying colors? You must have pushed yourself to your limit. It quickly becomes second nature for us to equate the likelihood of success with the amount of energy we expend. Rather than trusting our guts, our minds, and our bodies, we tense ourselves up in the hope that exerting more mental energy (as though we were lifting weights) will make us more likely to accomplish our goals.
A study conducted by the University of Chicago looked into why athletes “choke” at key moments. They found that while novice golfers performed better when they thought about their putts, professionals performed notably worse. Beginners benefited from thinking and analyzing, but the performance of professionals suffered when they thought too hard about the motions their bodies already knew how to do. The more they thought and the more “effort” they put into the putt, the more their muscle memories, and neural pathways were completely overridden. On the other hand, when they relaxed and trusted their intuition to take over, their putts were far more accurate.
3. Showing Your Work
Remember this gem from math class? You arrived at the correct answer, but you failed to write out the proper steps to show how you got there. This could cause you to lose partial credit, or if your teacher was particularly harsh, to get the question wrong entirely. This forces children to adopt methods that don’t make sense to them, even when they’ve come up with their own unique solution.
As a means to prevent students from cheating off of their classmates it’s understandable, but it actively discourages creative problem solving, insisting that there is only one proper way to approach a particular issue. While creativity may not be a word you hear associated with math, even fields dominated by what we would consider “left-brain” thinking (science, engineering, technology, etc.) all require a great deal of creative, outside-the-box thinking to perform at the highest levels. Forcing students to adopt a particular method at such a young age teaches them to ignore their intuition, rather than coming up with innovative, unique solutions that might be better than the original method.
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At the end of the day, life is not a math problem with one, clear-cut solution we can arrive at by applying more raw effort or by following a prescribed series of steps. Many of our most difficult decisions have a number of different solutions, none of them 100% right or wrong. And in plenty of cases, we don’t have any explanation for our choices other than they felt right beyond a shadow of a doubt. But when we have these moments of certainty, it’s often because we’re learning to listen to our intuition, whether it’s in the form of a nagging feeling, a thought in the back of our mind, or a dream that tells us the path we need to take. While our education may have taught us to drown out our intuition, we can learn to do so again.
How to Connect to Your Intuition
Our free introductory course, Awakening Your Intuition, invites you to step onto a path of intuitive awakening for a more joyful, purposeful, and enlightened life. Throughout the 5 sections of the course, we’ll share meditations, lessons, and guidance for aligned decision-making, designed to support you as you learn to balance your innate wisdom, heart, and mind.