This is a follow up sister piece to “When Universal Forces Unite to Direct You, Sometimes You Just Have to Roll with It.” Listening to our best advisor: our inner guide ~Sarah

“Your mind knows only some things. Your inner voice, your instinct, knows everything. If you listen to what you know instinctively, it will always lead you down the right path.” ~ Henry Winkler


Remember that gut-wrenching, don’t-do-it or don’t go-there “feeling” you sometimes felt as a kid? You know, the one that gripped your heart and stomach like the hand of Soromon, complete with fingernails that felt as though it were ripping out your insides? That was your intuition, your inner voice or a reminder of your mother’s sage warning to not do what you were about to do.

In one of my current book projects, “Last One Standing: Why Some Succeed When Others Fail,”  I did a deep-dive exploring what it means to fail, to succeed and to succeed despite overwhelming odds against success. And as tale after riveting  tale unfolded, it was fascinating to discover that many shared this experience of this knotting in the stomach feeling before they a made a decision that ultimately turned out to be the wrong one. Because I didn’t expect to uncover this particular subject, I wondered what had caused them to head this inner voice, this voice of warning, and when they didn’t, why not?

  • “I thought I knew better.”
  • “The person’s resume was so great and his recommendations were outstanding, so I ignored more intuition.”
  • “He was so fun and handsome, I never expected it would turn out so bad.”
  • “The deal made complete sense, and none of us could see a problem with it, so we did it.”

In other words, when they ignored the (often loud and sometimes physical warning signs) it was because they had ultimately determined their will would prevail over any warnings (an interesting, common trait among those who succeed by the way).

“You can be discouraged by failure, or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes, make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success – on the far side of failure.” ~Thomas J. Watson


Why we learn more from failures than successes

Among those I interviewed, the logical thinking mind vetoed the gut/intuition/second sense and in most instances (too many to dismiss out of hand), the outcome was spectacularly awful. In asking for details of the failure, I was told of eventual lawsuits, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, a fired individual who wouldn’t leave the company, then also threatened to sue, but not before poisoning the work environment. Stalking and domestic abuse, financial turmoil and a business going under were also mentioned (along with many others).

In time, I began noticing a reoccurring pattern. As if perfectly choreographed, the individual is presented with a choice, then quickly (or slowly) a feeling of hesitation (to varying degrees) is experienced.  So far so good.  But then the mind and will kicks in, overriding, outright crushing the feeling dead, then the decision is made, finally leading to the eventual disastrous outcome and all the consequences that follow.

What’s the lesson? That magic is real?  That there are two voices that beats within our chest?  Voices, really?  That we’re all like Nostradamus if only we would listen to ourselves.  Well um, yeah…  And the lesson?  It’s simply this: One must take care to discern between a feeling of warning and one of calm and peace. To ignore the signals is to do so at your peril.

Then why do so many “smart,” e.g. successful people ignore the “quiet signals?”

“That’s much harder to hear,” said one man, a serial entrepreneur. “When it’s I’m not supposed to do something—whatever it is that I’m considering—the  experience is actually physical-in my chest and stomach- but even sometimes in my head. It’s like a ‘stupor of thought.’ The solution or resolution is just not coming into focus.”

Most of the people I interviewed told me that when “things work out,” the feeling is the opposite and it’s rarely physical. The deal just comes through, or the date is set or the house sold, with very little drama. The chain of events unfold with such ease that oftentimes, the heart doesn’t skip a beat. There’s no thunderclap or A-ha. It just is.

And that’s what I think about and really analyze,” said the CEO and founder of a two-hundred-person accounting and investment firm. “I wait for the bad feelings, and when it doesn’t come, that itself is the answer that our research and intellect is aligning with our gut.”

An example of this was shared with me recently by a relative, who had her purse stolen.

While socializing with several other families at a park, she had put her purse in the backseat, only to return an hour later to find the window smashed and her purse gone missing. It took thirty days to resolve nearly eight thousand dollars in credit card and check fraud spending. On top of that, fifteen hundred dollars in cash meant for the contractor stolen, along with her identity. So, tack on another three months to get all of that sorted out.

“The very worst part of it all,” my relative wailed, “was I that I had the distinct feeling not to put it in the car, but to take it with me.” She’d always done so before, and in her thirty-five years of existence, had never been the victim of a purse snatching or theft of any kind. Now she heeds the “warning signs.” 

“Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” ~The Robot (from the film: “Lost in Space”)

The warning signs

Physical symptoms. That is the body telling you that it senses something you can’t, at least not at the conscious level

The mind: sometimes referred to as confusion, stupor of thought, lack of clarity, all senses that are the opposite of clarity

External senses/activity: things just aren’t “working out.” The paperwork is continually delayed, the time of the appointment is always reset, the conversation doesn’t go easy or as planned. All are red flags being thrown up by the forces around you.

That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something.” ~Meredith Monk


Getting personal

My experience is no different than many I heard from others. In a decade of active consulting, I only had one situation where my gut churned and I got the distinct impression not to take on a client, but like others before me, I ignored the feeling. To that point, I’d never had a client who hadn’t been satisfied, so the notion of dismissing a well-funded (albeit a start-up) firm never occurred to me. More than fifty percent of my business came from venture capital firms in the Silicon Valley, so money wasn’t the issue, I rationalized.

Still, I did pause long enough to review the client opportunity once again. Great technology? Check. Good management? Yep. Sound business model? Absolutely, and most important for my purposes, they had a real need and ability to attract several good partners to grow their revenue. So, we went ahead and signed the paperwork.

“It’s the clients you don’t take on that can kill your business, not those you do.” ~ S. Smith (aka “Dad”)

Somewhere along the way, while speaking to my father about the engagement, and he offered the sage insight quoted above. I considered what he shared, and I felt that it didn’t apply to me and I told him as much.

“Do yourself a favor,” he said, his tone carrying with it all the subtlety of a Mac truck coming towards me. “Start having all your clients sign a project completion sign-off sheet.” I’d never heard or thought of it before, and when I started to dismiss his comment, he literally said: “Stop. Just listen to me on this.” That shut me up long enough for him to tell me that it was common practice in most consulting practices and even manufacturing, engineering or other specialties. I believe I rolled my eyes, but the man had been rather successful in life, owning and operating businesses in a variety of industries, so I should probably listen to him (can you hear the grudging agreement in my words? It’s how I felt). Ultimately, I figured, ‘what’s it going to hurt?’ Nothing. Nor will it cost me a dime in attorney fees.

I wrote up a simple page that identified the project, fees, goals/milestones and results achieved. When the project ended, about six months later, I sent it to the CEO who signed it, sent it back, and in his email, also included his intent for another follow-on project and that he’d already budgeted the funds.

Over the next month, the CEO and I interacting several times to identify the timing of the next project, zero in on the projected cost of the project (around $120,000).  Everything is proceeding smoothly, like clockwork, and then, a week before we were set to sign the contract, he stops responding. No return phone calls, no proactive notes. It’s strange, and it leaves me wondering if maybe he died or something. I call his secretary, and am relieved to confirm that yes, he was alive but unavailable. Hmm. I’m thinking okay, but by the following week – radio silence.

What occurs next still gives me the hebee jeebies. I receive this demand letter from an attorney, accusing me of fraud. The attorney, it should be noted, is a board member for the client, and a partner at the venture capital firm that funds the clients’ company. I’ll spare you all the legal mumbo jumbo:  simply put:  the letter states that my firm hasn’t performed as required, the work and project goals weren’t accomplished.  In short:  they want the money back. All of it. The gut clenching feeling that I’d had when considering taking on the client comes back now, with a vengeance. Exact. Same. Feeling.

Up till this point, I’ve never needed legal representation for my company, so I arranged for a referral consultation with a local law firm. I explained my situation to the attorney and gave him the demand letter along with signed documents of project completion. The documents summarized the project journey: a simple timeline of our interaction, from beginning to end; summaries of client/CEO email correspondence about a future project; confirmation of budget approvals and indication that we were well on our way.

Two days later, my attorney called.

“They ran out of money,” he explained crisply. “The partner at the VC firm was going to every vendor, supplier and source to claw back money. Anyone who wasn’t smart enough to have a signed document, especially service providers, had to work out a settlement.”

Thank. You. Dad.

The amount was $110,000, just slightly less than the new project. It would have hurt, a lot. But thanks to the wisdom of my father, I was saved.

The bigger lesson learned was listening to my inner self, the one that I employed thereafter, was to listen, and not second guess or talk myself out of my inner core is telling me. 100% of the time, no matter what the circumstances, or situation, regardless of how much I wanted a client, a date, a home, a new set of dishes—big or small, important or trivial.

“Your inner voice is the voice of divinity. To hear it, we need to be in solitude, even in crowded places.” ~A.R. Rahman

After that, in addition to taking note of my physical, mental and emotional reactions (which became increasingly easier to discern), I made a concerted effort to listen to the quiet, calm impressions. Now that was hard. In a world filled with all sorts of things: family, friends, work, hobbies, exercising, the dog, my chickens, reading, great music (which I like to play rather loud) et all, is it any wonder that the only “signs” I paid attention to are the ones that cause physical pain? My effort involved:

  • Turning down the music
  • Finding quiet time (on the treadmill, but turning off the television in front of me, the music in my ears, reading only a book, which just about kills me)
  • Thinking about a situation or a decision…pondering, really, turning it upside down and sideways to look at it from different angles.

“We all have that inner voice that is wise, even if we don’t always follow it. It’s that voice I’m trying to listen to.” ~Ray LaMontagne

You know that I have this age vs wisdom perspective, and I can admit that I was wise in small pockets in my twenties (I can recall only once or twice where I “might” have been wise before then). Real wisdom, in my case, came in small bits starting in my late twenties. Part of that wisdom was gained by constantly speaking to others, seeking to understand perspectives, experiences and watching for patterns. The more I did this, the easier it became to apply the experience of others to my own life. Many times, a snippet of wisdom (hard earned) by another has saved me from myself, and that was done by an affirmation of sorts, that my reluctance to carry through on a choice (or not) was given/received.

Our inherent, God-given second nature, intuition is our constant companion. It is our spiritual self (communicating to our temporal physical self) the best course of action to take. Whether or not we choose to listen is called Free Will, but I’ll save my commentary on that subject for another time.