The best career decisions are made when intuition overrules your brain.
I can give you advice until I'm blue in the face about which career paths to pursue, how to gussy up your resumé, and how to successfully network. But when we get down to brass tacks, what's most important is not that you listen to me. Do yourself a big favor and promise to always listen to your gut.
Your gut is a trusted friend. It sounds the alarm when an opportunity is either too awesome to pass up or not in your best interest. It kicks in before your brain has had a chance to process and digest data about a project or position and decide whether you should actually pursue it.
It's vital to realize that your gut and your brain may disagree, which can result in your body feeling like it is in the throes of a mixed martial arts battle. Your brain may scream, "Do this! How could you not? This position is prestigious and will provide you with nothing but benefits!" But your gut roars, "Danger, Will Robinson! Do not proceed!" Which do you listen to? It's simple: Always trust your gut.
You don't have to take my word for it. A 1997 study in Science showed that participants in a gambling exercise performed best when they combined reasoning with nonconscious biases—their intuition. "Without the help of such biases, overt knowledge may be insufficient to ensure advantageous behavior," the authors wrote.
Despite this evidence that we should trust our intuition, it can still be challenging. Your gut may fight not only your brain but also your trusted advisers. Your mentors might advocate accepting a position, and your brain wholeheartedly agrees. Yet soon, sometimes ever so subtly, you notice a quiet rumbling in your gut. Soon it simmers and stews and boils over and will only cease when you finally pay attention. The message becomes clear: There is something not right with this opportunity, and you need to dedicate further brain power to analyze it.
Many years ago I spoke with someone in my field about how we might work together. One day she emailed me and suggested we partner on a project. She had landed an assignment with a prestigious enterprise. I had stars in my eyes: "Wow, she chose me!" Then the rub was revealed: She proposed that I would write the first draft, using my data and intimate knowledge. She would add to it, and then after a discussion we would submit the agreed-upon version for publication. She would be listed as first author because she had secured the deal, even though I would be doing the heavy lifting and most of the work would be based on my expertise.
My gut screeched, "Stop! Something's not right!" But my mind responded, "Shut up! This is a fantastic opportunity!" And indeed, I knew that participating would probably benefit my career. Still, my gut churned and bubbled. Tortured by the battle raging between my gut and brain, I turned to a mentor for help. He advised me to take on the project. I still remember sitting in that meeting thinking he was right and yet feeling he was absolutely wrong.
In the end, I chose not to collaborate. As soon as I made the decision, my gut quieted down and settled in for a long hibernation. I was free. And I couldn't have been happier.
Although I might have triumphed from that opportunity, I knew I had made the right decision. Soon after, in a wave of euphoria, new ideas and inspiration came to me. Those innovations would not have been possible if my gut had been clogging the creativity channels in my brain with aches of concern and doubt.
Your gut can be a little tricky to understand, especially if you are early in your career. Over the course of my career, I have sought to study the gut instinct to better comprehend its actions. Here's what I've learned about its nature and behavior:
- Your gut is sadistic. It likes to maximize your pain to ensure that in the end your holistic well-being is protected. It knows more than your brain and will do whatever it takes so you will listen to it, including inducing razor blade–like agony.
- Your gut isn't always logical. Sometimes it seems to go against every reasonable fiber of your body and experience. That can be especially hard to accept for those of us trained in STEM. But we must remember that plenty of other feelings are illogical. Love is but one crucial example. And just like true love, your gut provides a binary answer to any problem you have: either yes or no.
- Your gut is psychic. It knows which opportunities to accept and which to reject, well in advance of your brain.
- Your gut is bold and brave. And sometimes, it takes over your body with its courage. Your mind may think that you are unskilled for a specific job or unworthy of an award. But your gut shrieks "Go for it! You can do it!" Say you see a renowned colleague at a conference. Your brain says, "I can't talk to her. She's so high up in the field. Why would she want to speak with me?" Your gut initiates an emergency response and overtakes your body, and before you know it, you are physically walking toward her and have extended your hand to make her acquaintance. Your gut makes sure you don't miss the opportunity to engage her, no matter how shy or afraid you may be.
Time and time again I have experienced my gut taking over my body for the good of my career. Once I was attending a mixer with editors. As it concluded, before I even realized I had risen from my chair, I had flown across the ballroom and found myself speaking with an editor and pitching an idea for a new column. The notion of writing a column had never even entered my mind while I was sitting listening to the editor speak. And yet, when the opportunity presented itself, my gut pushed me in his direction and prompted me to propose collaborating with him. Thanks to my gut, I landed my first column.
- Your gut is ambitious and driven. In the right moment, it trumpets your promise of value to potential and current partners. It shares your knowledge and expertise in the most positive and profitable ways. When you are tongue-tied and can't find a means to share your credentials, your gut pushes you to publicize your abilities, skills, and experience in a manner that is meaningful and appropriate.
- Occasionally, your gut is subtle. So even if you notice just a soft rustling in your gut, take note. You can bet your gut is trying to tell you something.
Most significantly, your gut is your BFF. It has your back. It always wants what's best for you. So whether your gut gently moans, happily or sadly cries, or howls in excruciating pain, listen to it. And when it pushes you to do something, act on it. Your gut knows the truth: You are amazing, and that new experience will only make you more amazing.
Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds, which was named by Physics Today as one of the top five books of 2015. She can be reached through her website, www.alainalevine.com,or on Twitter at@AlainaGLevine.