Are you intuitive?

Does intuition really exist? And if so, does it play a role in technology successes and failures?

If you've ever been involved in any sort of home construction, you know it always takes longer than the contractors say it will. For the past 10 weeks, the Tobaks have been doing a swimming pool project. So far, so good.

Last night, as the Bay Area cooled down from a three-day heat wave, my wife said, "It would sure be nice to get water in the pool in the next two weeks."

"What do you mean?" I exclaimed, "You know the pool company is scheduled to come out tomorrow and fill it up on Tuesday. Two weeks? We'll be swimming in two days!"

"Uh huh," she said.

The next morning, my wife pulled the pillow off my snoring head and announced, "We have no water."

I replied with a blank, bleary-eyed stare.

"The pool guys are all here and we have no water."

"Okay," I replied, "I'm getting up."

Apparently, a stuck check valve in our irrigation system had been dumping precious water faster than our well pump could pump it. Our holding tanks were dry.

No water meant the pool guys couldn't do their thing. An hour later, the whole gang packed up and left.

When you live in a rural mountainous area, this sort of thing happens from time to time. That means every few years.

So I'm sitting here trying to figure out how my wife knew something was going to happen. She couldn't possibly have known. Wait, I know. She sabotaged the irrigation system just to appear prescient. Nah, that's just crazy.

When I asked her about it, she said she'd just had a feeling.

That got me thinking: Is there such a thing as intuition? And if so, what is it and how does it matter to you and me?

According to the dictionary, intuition, as it applies here, means: "the power or faculty of attaining direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference."

Some scientists believe intuition is an evolutionary survival mechanism. If you were a caveman, for example, and you sensed danger, you would hide in a cave and avoid being eaten by some blood-crazed saber-toothed tiger, or something like that. Since you survived, you got to reproduce and pass your "intuition-sensing gene" onto your offspring, and so-forth.

Of course, those same scientists think that advanced medical techniques, technology and civilization have all but stopped evolution in its tracks. So give up on those sci-fi books that postulate huge-brained superhumans in the future. If anything, it's more likely that we're getting dumber.

You'd think someone would do a study on number of offspring versus IQ.

As for me, I buy the survival mechanism thing. I also think intuition is related to feelings, perhaps on a subconscious level, as opposed to conscious reasoning. It might be more pronounced in people who are more empathetic or sympathetic, I'm not sure which. That shows how much I know about this stuff.

Still, it might explain women's intuition, if indeed that theory - that woman are more in touch with their emotions than men - is still in vogue.

In my wife's case, she seems to get these feelings every so often and they usually turn out be right. She says that when she met me 19 years ago her intuition was to run. Hard to be skeptical with hard evidence like that staring you right in the face.

As for me, my feelings are so bottled up I wouldn't recognize intuition if Albert Einstein materialized in my living room and recited the theory of relativity.

Einstein was definitely intuitive, but what's that got to do with technology? Well, there are logical reasons for most of the runaway technology successes that come to mind, but a few make me wonder.

Was it intuition that got Bill Gates to agree to come up with an operating system for IBM, even though Microsoft wasn't in the OS business? Not to mention forgoing development fees in exchange for non-exclusivity and per-unit royalties. He couldn't possibly have known how lucrative that arrangement would turn out to be.

Could intuition have played a role in Mark Cuban selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.9 billion in stock and immediately hedging that stock against a market crash, all at the peak of the dot-com bubble? How many dozen entrepreneurs rode the market down?

And how about intuition that people don't pay attention to? I'm just shooting blind here, but I wonder if any of HP's board directors flinched subconsciously at the choice of Carly Fiorina as CEO? I mean, she looked great on paper, but was there something intangible lurking beneath the surface that gave them pause?

And did a little voice in Jerry Yang's head say, Don't do it; you don't have what it takes when the board offered him the CEO job? Did he ignore it, figuring, What the hell, what's the worst that can happen?

I don't suppose we'll ever know what role intuition plays in our lives. But if you're one of those people with a little voice in your head, I'd pay attention to it. Who knows, you may become the next Bill Gates ... or avoid becoming the next Jerry Yang.

 

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