A Counterintuitive New Year's Resolution: Build Your Gut

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  • by Justin Masterson

OK, like everybody else, I have made a resolution that starting January 1 I will get healthy: exercise routinely, cut down on sugar and carbs and trade my beer belly for a kombucha six-pack.  Here’s the counterintuitive part: while I am trying to shed belly, I am simultaneously trying to build gut, and I am urging you to do the same.

In this case, what I mean by “gut” is your strategic intuition; that gut-feeling that drives your choices.  And specifically, that you work hard to build that gut for the needs of your customers, stakeholders, consumers, patients… whatever you want to call them, they’re the people you serve who serve you with their loyalty and patronage.

When we talk about “gut intuition” and “gut decisions” we’re not just using a folksy idiom… we are actually drawing from an ancient (and largely unconscious) connection between our decision-making and our actual gut:  the enteric nervous system. Our gut houses 500 million neurons (“thinking cells,” like those that make up your brain), and actually represents an entire ‘second brain’ that drives an incredible amount of our unconscious and pre-conscious decision-making.  It is a magnificent mechanism, evolved long before the conscious mind, that helps drive us towards things that are good for us and away from things that are bad for us. It is both faster and more influential than your conscious mind and drives so many decisions every day so rapidly that you and I have become largely unaware of its influence.

Your gut is trained through emotional experience.  Essentially, when you experience pain or pleasure, revulsion or attraction, your gut encodes that memory as a couple of neuronal hashtags.  When you were eight and got the flu while eating hot dogs, your gut encoded a couple of hashtags together: #hot dogs #vomit #nausea #upsetting.  Even though the #flu and #hot dogs hashtags aren’t related, they get encoded together and you find that, even as an adult, you can’t eat hot dogs. That’s your gut at work, driving your decision-making well outside of the boundaries of your conscious mind.

Your emotional experiences have been building your gut intuition for a lifetime; your gut is a sea of personal hashtags that drive your unconscious decisions to serve your needs.  But what if you are in the business of serving others’ needs? What if your success depends not on your own drives and desires, but on meeting others? That’s the position most companies find themselves in.  How do you build a gut for others, that will drive you to make fast and highly-influential decisions on their behalf?

The answer is to have their emotional experiences.  Not just to know their hashtags but to actually encode your gut with them by having their emotional experiences with them.  How do you do that? Good news: evolution has beautifully engineered a mechanism for that, too… it’s called empathy.

Empathy is humankind’s most evolved mechanism for solving others’ needs.  When you experience empathy, you are actually activating an entire gut-brain response process that encodes another’s hashtags as if they were your own, and your gut launches into a process of problem-solving on their behalf.  In fact, the gut will recruit your brain into the process of solving their problem, so you will naturally begin to leverage your intellectual assets on their behalf.  If you make cereal, your gut will ask, “how can cereal make this better?” If you formulate pharmaceuticals, your gut will beg, “how can we apply a molecular solution here?”  Your expertise, your brand, their problem… and your entire body is charged with incredible idea-generating power to solve it right the first time.

So, as you head into the New Year and you're preparing to launch learning plans and marketing initiatives and innovation streams… make it a point to first build your gut.  Seek out empathic connections with the people you serve.  If you’re not sure how, give us a ring, we do this a lot.  If you are sure how, dig in. Connect human-to-human, and let their emotional experiences become your own.  Do it in earnest, and do it often. Your gut will thank you in 2019.