Trust Your Feelings, Luke

“Trust your feelings…”

— Obi Wan Kenobi


Star Wars made it seem so simple: all a Jedi had to do was trust his or her feelings and they would do the right thing. It certainly worked out pretty well for Luke in the original movie (Episode IV), blowing up the Death Star and all. But then came The Empire Strikes Back and it turned out that learning to trust your feelings involved running around in a swamp with a grouchy Muppet on your back.

Feelings are certainly useful, and they can help us make better decisions. However, just as Luke discovered, it’s not quite as easy as Obi Wan originally made it seem. In fact, trusting our feelings in the heat of the moment can often lead to very bad decisions: in a training exercise I was running, one participant was completely convinced that another participant was lying to her. She based this on her infallible instincts, aka feelings. When we debriefed at the end, it turned out he wasn’t lying. He was telling her the complete truth and would have helped her if she’d let him. In general, letting our feelings rule the day works out badly when we’re tired, hungry, frustrated, confused, angry, or even overly happy.  In each of these cases, strong feelings can overshadow judgment.

So, when are feelings useful?

It helps a great deal to train your feelings. The point of Luke running around the swamp may have been primarily to make Jedi training look mysterious, however for serious athletes, constant drills and training serve to develop their skills and hone their instincts. The master fencer picks up on subtle cues of posture and blade position that reveal what their opponent is likely to do next. It is because of their training that they can trust and act on their feelings.

Feelings can be very useful when planning future strategy. When you feel strongly, good or bad, about a particular course of action, that’s often a good clue that it’s worth exploring that action more thoroughly. Why do you feel that way? What about that course of action appeals to you or does not appeal to you? Just to make things more complicated, feeling good about a course of action doesn’t mean that the action will succeed just as feeling bad about a course of action doesn’t mean it is a bad choice. You might feel good only because the action feels safe or you might feel bad because the action involves something new and different. In that case, the correct choice might be to go against your instincts.

When engaged in a long and complex project, be that designing software or producing marketing materials, it can help to pause periodically and admire your work. If you don’t like it while it’s in progress, that’s a bad sign. Pay attention to your feelings: they’re likely telling you something is wrong.

Training feelings can be tough. Athletes do it through many days and weeks of practice. Jedi do it by running around a swamp. In a business setting, sufficiently complex and elaborate training games can serve the same purpose, only with better food and without the humidity. Such games, in addition to their other benefits, are fun and can help build organizational cohesion.

Like Obi Wan said, “Trust your feelings.” But take the time to make your feelings trustable.

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