A number of years ago, I was on a plane to the west coast where I was scheduled to run the fourth series of focus groups on anxiety and how people coped. We had already spoken to people in the Northeast, South and Midwest. There were so many stories – some were disturbing, some sad, some thought provoking but the one I heard on the plane out to LA was the most remarkable and inspiring.
Long trips on airplanes encourage interesting conversations. You’d think I’d want some quiet before engaging in my work, but I love hearing about people’s lives and I’m always open.
The conservatively dressed business woman sitting next to me appeared to be in her late 50’s, was attractive but probably by the doctor’s scale 50 lbs beyond her healthiest weight. This was not someone I would expect to see taking part in the NYC marathon.
After we had exchanged pleasantries for a little while and we seemed to run out of polite things to say, I noticed that there was something about 9/11 in the magazine she was reading. It was a few years after the catastrophe, but people were still asking the question, “Where were you when . . .“
I said, “Wow, it’s still in our minds. Was such a shock.” She nodded. And after a couple of more observations by each of us, the inevitable question came up. “So what about you? Where were you?”
My new friend, whose name was MaryAnn sighed deeply as if to get up enough energy to tell her story.
“It was early. I had my cup of coffee and was sitting at my desk on the 24th floor of the World Trade Center. . .”
My eyes widened, “You were there?!”
She nodded. “We were in the south tower, you know the one that collapsed first.
I had just switched from my red heels to my flats and was looking at my email. There was a loud boom and sirens starting going off. I was startled, and rushed to my door. People were shouting and security guards were herding people in the halls towards the stairwells. Something was very wrong, but I didn’t know what. I went to retrieve my purse, when someone grabbed me by the arm and aggressively led me to the stairs. I didn’t know what to think. I just followed. With constant encouragement of ‘keep moving’ we all clamored down the stairs trying not to step on each other.
We were two floors from the lobby when we came to a stand still. We were told to wait on the stairs. But I slowly edged my way down. I had to see what was happening. When I got to the main level, I noticed the lobby was empty except for a number of security people who were on their walkie talkies and trying to manage the hordes of people in the different stair wells. I opened the door and entered the lobby. People started yelling, “M’am, get back into the stair well!!” I couldn’t. I knew I had to get out of there. No matter what they were saying it wasn’t safe. I felt terror. I ran to the closest door, it was locked. Then to the next. As I pushed it open, they were yelling STOP, STOP but I didn’t. I had to get out of there. I started running. And I didn’t stop until I made it all the way back to my apartment on the West Side.”
My jaw was almost on my lap. “But that has to be over 6 miles!“ I knew, because I walked it myself once. “You ran the whole way?”
I was shaking my head side to side in awe of this woman’s feat.
“I’m so glad you’re here and safe. What were you thinking? How did you get yourself out of that horrible trap?”
“I just knew I had to get out of there and I had to do it no matter what anyone said. It wasn’t safe. The only one who could help me was me.”
“What were you thinking as you were running home?”
“You know, the weirdest part of it is was that I wasn’t thinking anything but feeling upset that I left my favorite red heels in my office. I wasn’t worried about my pocket book or my computer, just my shoes.”
“I definitely understand that!” We both laughed.
I felt like I learned an important lesson that day. It was something I knew instinctively, but might have admonished myself for not toeing the line.
Especially, when there’s a matter of safety it may be critical to pay attention to your gut.
Hers was an extreme example of following her intuition. It was life or death.
Our built in, unconscious, but constantly developing intuition is part of our tool kit for thriving under many conditions.
Renowned generals demonstrate coup d'oeil, the power of the glance. It enables them to immediately assess a battlefield. Students are excellent at predicting who will be a good teacher from only a sliver of exposure to them.
Albert Einstein called intuition the "only real valuable thing." Steve Jobs thought it was “more powerful than intellect.”
While most of us think being smart and knowledgeable is the key to success, a study among leaders suggests elsewise. Thirty-six major CEOs were asked to name their decision making's most critical component. 85% responded with "intuition" or "gut feel" as being responsible for their accomplishments.
Intuition is a valuable part of everyday life.
In, “Blink.” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that our first impressions are very accurate and stand the test of time. His assertion is based on many studies that support the conclusion that we make a pretty accurate assessment of a person based on knowing them for only a few seconds. He calls that super-fast evaluation “thin slicing.”
“It is a central part of what it means to be human,” Gladwell writes. “We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.”
Many years ago, a college professor of mine told us a story of how her instincts took over in a dangerous situation. She was driving on a high speed highway when a car coming in the other direction jumped the divider, seemingly flew into the air heading directly towards her. She said time stopped for what must have been a milli-second. In that frozen space, she heard herself question should I hit the brake? Instead, she slammed her foot on the accelerator. The oncoming car’s wheels rolled over her roof before it crashed behind her.
Our instincts and intuition are particularly sharp when there is impending danger, but are also important to attend to in everyday life. First impressions of a date, a job applicant, a new neighbor are far more often accurate than not.
Intuition may feel like it’s coming out of nowhere, but it is NOT magic. It’s the result of taking in and evaluating many cues and clues. It’s a product of continuous input and learning that are there to help us make judgments and if necessary take spontaneous action.
So when you’re having a gut response to someone or something, and especially when you feel an electrical charge fire up your spine, take it seriously.
Because she followed her intuition and instincts, MaryAnn, the reluctant mini-marathon runner, lived to inspire others with her story AND find a new pair of red heels.