“Decide, v.i. To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.” – Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary)

 Yesterday, we talked about gut instinct — what it is and why it is so important when you work yourself up to the top ranks of business. Today, I want to suggest a system for educating and improving your gut instinct.

Of JSN’s many impressive qualities (a great memory, a mind for details, skilled negotiator, etc.), the one thing that most impressed me when I worked with him and still impresses me now is his uncanny knack for knowing whether or not a business idea will work. JSN has a great gut instinct — much better than mine and much, much better than that of most of the businesspeople I’ve worked with.

I’ve always seen him as a kind of profit shark. In a vast sea of opportunities, JSN can detect, sometimes from great distances, the one that has blood in it. When I worked with him, I thought of it as a born gift — something the fates decided. But now I think it is a skill that you can develop.

The Harvard Business Review report we looked at yesterday suggests, as you will recall, that the feeling you get from “the gut” is in fact a physiological message from the part of your mind that recognizes patterns (your preconscious or subsconscious mind). It is saying to your conscious mind, “You can’t see this, but this will go badly (or this will go well).”

We said that the impulse that tells you to walk away from a particular investment or to make another is a response derived from many similar experiences — in the same and in unrelated fields — over a long period of time. We also said that the “Aha!” moment that sometimes comes to you when you’re struggling to make the right business decision happens when you consciously recognize something you have subconsciously known for a long time.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But what happens when your gut instinct is wrong?

I think what happens is this: Your subconscious mind has been improperly programmed. Generally, one of two things happens. Either the data (patterns) going in are false or the conclusions that you keep attaching to them are invalid.

For example, let’s say that every Thursday you put on a blue wool suit and discovered that when you put your hand on your office door you got a shock. The pattern you’ve been noticing is valid. Blue suit. Thursday. Shock. But if you concluded that the problem was Thursday or the color blue, you’d be wrong.

A different example: You read in the newspaper that violent crime keeps rising. You read story after story of terrible things happening on the street. You conclude that it’s safer to stay inside. Then you find out that all those stories were fabrications. Your decision about your safety was valid but the data were wrong.

I think these two kinds of bad programming are common for two reasons. First, we all have a capacity to misinterpret our own experiences. Second, we can have indirect “faulty” experiences when we read and watch television.

Also, there is the problem of perspective. Take any experience — a ball game, a traffic accident, a business meeting — and ask four people what took place. Chances are, you’ll get four different answers. Based on each person’s perspective and past history, different elements of the same experience may or may not stand out. This means that the pattern that is subconsciously recorded will be different for different people. And some of those will be simply wrong.

But I don’t think that happens all that often. Generally speaking, we are all pretty good at seeing the true patterns of any experience we have. What I think does happen quite often, though, is that we internalize faulty patterns by reading newspapers and watching television. Secondary experiences, such as those we glean from these media, can “feel” very real to the subconscious mind. They can be internalized just as readily, I think, as primary experiences.

As a marketing guy, I know this: If I want to sell you an insurance product, I have to stir up your uncertainties — even your fears. I can do that by creating little stories that make the point I want to make. So if I want to sell you accident insurance, for example, I’ll write 10 terrible tales about accident victims. By the time you’ve read three of them, you will have an internal, subconscious pattern in favor of accident insurance established.

When I teach copywriting at American Writers & Artists Institute (AWAI) seminars, I train writers to do just that. By showing (rather than telling), I teach them, you create in your prospect a deep experience — one that involves feelings, thoughts, and desires — that will serve your selling objective.

We all know that a woman in an old Victorian house should not go into the basement alone. Yet, none of us has been hacked to death for doing so. We all know that the ozone layer is disappearing and that the oceans are rising. Yet, we’ve never actually seen an ozone layer or measured the ocean tide.

You’ve got to be very careful about the patterns you internalize, because they will determine your gut instinct later on. And when it comes to business, it seems to me that the sensible person will make every effort to pay close and objective attention to his primary experiences and will be very skeptical of everything he reads or hears about, however enticing.

It all comes back to my preference for primary experience. Learn from what has actually happened to you, not from what has supposedly happened to others. Remember that history is written by people who have stories to sell.

To develop a great gut instinct for business, pay attention to every business deal you do. Assess its outcome objectively. Ask others for their opinions. What worked? What didn’t? Resist the temptation to revise the facts later. Resist the impulse to make yourself “right” in retrospect.

The conclusions you draw from your actual, primary business experiences are the most valuable resources you have. Make sure they are valid. If you do that . . . and treat secondary information very skeptically . . . your instinct for what to do in any situation will inevitably get better. One day, your protégé might even be amazed by you.