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Two Blessings and Two Curses of Intuition

Published 3/22/2021

You need intuition to build incredible skill. But it's important to develop a healthy caution towards intuition, as it can create a brittle framework for thinking. In this episode, we discuss both sides of this.

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Today's episode is sponsored by LaunchDarkly. LaunchDarkly is today’s leading feature management platform, empowering your teams to safely deliver and control software through feature flags. By separating code deployments from feature releases, you can deploy faster, reduce risk, and rest easy.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
What is the value of experience? This is a question that especially as a beginner I had very often as a software engineer. And it's one that I think is really hard to answer because we want everyone to feel valuable in the beginning of their career to have unique value as a beginner but also to understand that experience does have a specific value and that specific value we're going to talk about today. That value is intuition. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. You're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. So the value of intuition, we're talking about intuition today but we're not just going to talk about it as a positive thing as with most things, as with most powers, if you want to call it that, most skills, it comes with the downside. Intuition does have a downside and you can probably guess some of that downside. If you've been listening to this show for very long at all, you can probably imagine that it has something to do with the way that our brains work. So we're going to talk about two kind of curses of intuition and then also two blessings of intuition if you want to call it something different, feel free. These are two good things and two bad things. So let's talk about the two curses first. The first curses that intuition is very good, but it's not perfect. So we can't rely on it completely. We've experienced this, especially as younger engineers, probably younger in their careers. I mean, people who have less intuition working with people who do have good intuition, but they rely on it as if it is infallible. This is the problem. If you're good 99% of the time, then you can't rely on that all the way. You can't just use intuition to make decisions. Intuition is very good at giving you a direction, which is the kind of piece of advice to take away from this particular curse. Very good at giving you a direction to go. It's good. It's a great pointer. That sometimes our intuition is totally off. Let's back up for a minute and talk about what intuition is to begin with. Intuition is essentially the well-worn path in our brain. It's a well-worn path because we've given our brains a consistent kind of pattern, a consistent kind of stimulus, and the brain is recognizing that pattern faster and faster because that pathway is well-worn. We'll save some of the neuroscience for people who are more qualified to talk about it. This idea is fairly simple. Our brains recognize patterns very well. That's a very important thing that we can do as humans. When we see patterns that we've seen a lot of times before, our brains are very good at taking a bunch of shortcuts. We're no longer having to evaluate those things really thoroughly to understand them. We have very good models for those things. We have a lot of intuition just naturally as human beings. For example, anything that you do on autopilot, that is because you built intuition for how to do that thing. For a perfect example of this, those of us who are able, we walk using what we wouldn't really call it intuition probably, but that's the same concept. We have some keen sense of the patterns of walking. We can look at the ground and understand what our feet are going to feel like if we were to walk on that ground. Well, in advance, once again, our pattern recognition is an intentional effort by our brains to try to predict some future. When you start recognizing a pattern, the intuition part is understanding what plays out when that pattern appears when we have that stimulus. The response that our brains provide when we have a well-worn path with some pattern-based stimulus, that is intuition. Intuition takes time to develop. It takes experience to develop, but this first curse that we're talking about here, which is that sometimes our intuition is wrong, is a byproduct of randomness in the universe. We can recognize patterns that are actually not what we think they are. We can see things happening that are not actually happening. Our brains being very good at recognizing patterns are not very good at recognizing when something is random. We're not very good at recognizing when there's a hole in the plot to our story because we want to make things make sense. When things make sense, we tend to succeed. We try to make things make sense even when they don't. Our intuition is biased towards kicking in more often than it should. Sometimes we use that intuition in situations where we should take a step back and say, no, I don't have a perfect picture of how this plays out. This is curse number one. We're actually going to switch back and forth between curse and blessing. We are not all negative and then all positive. The first blessing of intuition, and we're not going to go with the obvious ones. The obvious blessing of intuition is that you can develop skills and response times that are better than the average. You can develop an easy way of responding to certain situations. Confusion is good at giving you kind of faster than normal reflexes and that gives you the ability to build a higher level of skill in a given area. That's the obvious one. We're not going to talk about that anymore. The blessing that I want to talk about is you have a better time traveling device than most people do about this particular subject. Time traveling is something we always do. We're trying to understand what's going to happen in three days, three weeks, three months, three years if we make a particular decision. If we see this pattern, we're trying to time travel based on the patterns that we see. Time traveling just in our minds, imagining what the future will be like. In this particular case, we're not talking about traveling back in time. We're talking about traveling forward. Although you could make the exact same argument that you're very good at traveling back and identifying very similar instances because you have good intuition for how this pattern matches those. Because intuition is largely based on pattern recognition, you can usually recognize a bad path before other people can. You can time travel much faster, you can see much faster into that theoretical future. You can have a better guess that, hey, you know what, if we go down that pathway, then I'm recognizing this pattern of, I've done this a thousand times and 995 of those times things went poorly. So I think we probably shouldn't do that. You have a better understanding, a better grasp, a better way of jumping forward into the future than other people might. And for what it's worth, it's not just about avoiding bad things, right? You can also recognize a good path, a good signal. Another really good example of this is recognizing talent in other people. If you are, let's say you are a coach and you've developed an intuition for the kinds of athletes that really make for good players in a particular position, right? It's a very specific thing that you've developed an intuition for. Well, now you can recognize some of the patterns of behavior that would signify somebody might be qualified for that position again, right? Again, we can see the kind of interplay between that first curse, which is that intuition is very good, but not perfect and that first blessing, which is that you have a better time traveling device than most people do, right? It's not a perfect time traveling device. You're not predicting the future with certainty. You have a different unique perspective because of your intuition, but you don't have a perfect perspective because of your intuition. In other words, you shouldn't use your intuition, all right? This is a very important point to take away in the first half of this episode. You shouldn't be using your intuition as a set of credentials or as some kind of over writing, you know, an over writing title that you've done this for so long and therefore everyone should listen to you point blank. This is an error that a lot of people make. It's close to this, right? You should be using your intuition to convince other people, all right? To convince them to take a second look. You should be using your intuition because you have a better time traveling device than other people do. You should be using that intuition to sound the alarm when you see something that could go wrong, but recognize that upon further inspection, you also could be wrong. Okay, we're going to take a quick sponsor break and then we're going to come back and talk about the second curse, the second blessing of intuition. Today's episode is sponsored by Launch Darkly. Launch Darkly is today's leading feature management platform empowering your teams to safely deliver and control software through feature flags by separating code deployments from feature releases. You can deploy faster, reduce risk and rest easy and we all want easy boring deployments. We all want to be able to push code and not have to sit and watch logs for eight hours into the night. Nobody wants to wake up in the middle of the night to a page call saying that they have to go and roll back a commit. Whether you're an established enterprise like into it, for example, or a small business, like Glowforge, thousands of companies of all sizes are relying on Launch Darkly right now to control their entire feature lifecycle and avoid anxiety fueled sleepless nights. With Launch Darkly, for example, IBM went from deploying twice a week to over a hundred times a day. Remember, this is because they've been able to separate to decouple their deployments of their code from the deployments of their features. You can deploy faster, reduce risk and of course, rest, rest easy. We've been able to roll out new features at a pace that would have been unheard of a couple of years ago, said IBM's Kubernetes delivery lead, Michael McKay. You can learn how at launchdarkly.com. That's launch. D-A-R-K-L-Y.com. Thanks again to Launch Darkly for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Teague. Okay, so we're talking about intuition. What exactly is it we've covered that and how it can be both good, which is all of our intuition says that intuition is good. That's the natural kind of expectation that experience is going to give you a better basis to work from and that's generally true, but there are ways that intuition can go bad. We're going to talk about a second one right now. One that goes stale in some way is hard to change another way to think about intuition. Because intuition kind of has a positive tone. If you think about that word, you probably have a, you know, if you had to rate it on a scale of neutral, positive or negative, especially before listening to this episode, you probably would have rated it as a positive thing. Intuition is a positive thing. Intuition that goes stale could be a negative thing. Another way to think about intuition, you might want to rename intuition when you hear it connected to this idea that intuition is a cognitive habit. A cognitive habit. What does that mean? It means that when your brain receives a particular stimuli, it will respond in this particular way. Some people who have not received that much stimuli like you have. Some people who don't have the intuition that you have may not have developed as strong of a cognitive habit as you have as well. And so if that same pattern begins to mean something different, we've all experienced those, if something that you have experienced in the past happens again in the future, but it means something different based on the surroundings, based on your culture, based on the technology you're using, for whatever reason, that same stimulus that you previously responded to in a particular way, if it means something different, and then your previous intuition becomes not a superpower, not a good thing, it becomes a hurdle. Why does it become a hurdle? Because it's hard to change that deeply ingrained pathway. It's hard to rewire all of that and change how your brain responds to stimuli when it's already gone into that auto pilot mode. Intuition is a cognitive habit and habits are hard to change. So if your intuition has gone stale, if you are out of date for whatever reason, if something that you previously experienced as a stimulus to your brain, if you recognize a pattern, and actually that pattern means something totally new, that intuition has gone stale, then you're going to have a much harder time updating that intuition, removing it, removing that habit, stopping it, or replacing that habit, then somebody who is totally fresh and totally new. All right, this plays into something that is kind of a strength of being a beginner, it is that you don't have a lot of the baggage or preconceived mental models that a lot of the more experienced engineers have. You might be able to start, for example, at a higher abstraction layer and ignore some of the things that other developers may be bogged down by because you're able to start at a higher abstraction layer, you don't really necessarily have to worry about all of the particulars underneath. Some of the things that we imagine because of our past experiences, we imagine we're supposed to worry about, but actually those things are taken care of by those abstraction layers. All right, so what is another good thing about intuition though? We've talked about the good and we've talked about the bad, we're going to talk about one more good thing, and that is that as you gain intuition, instead of spinning all of your time and energy on that first layer of response, right? Whatever that first layer is, whatever that initial thing is that you've kind of put on autopilot, you can spend your time going to a second layer. What do I mean by this? Imagine the second order consequences of your behaviors or the nuances, the differences, the variations, if you watch any kind of documentaries about chess, for example, you can study variations in chess, but only once you have the intuition for why those variations are significant, how those nuances matter. So intuition provides you the kind of stage or the foundation to work on variations and nuances, and this is where deep levels of skill and differentiation come into play. This is where you start getting into very small pools of people in terms of who is able to do what you are able to do. If you build your intuition in a particular area and then you develop nuanced understandings of different variations in that same area, you're going to have a high level of skill that is very hard to replicate and very hard to replace. So we talked about intuition today. I hope that you can see that intuition has a place in your career, but you also have to be careful with it because it can actually tie your hands in some ways. You have to understand both the drawbacks and the validity, the value of intuition as it relates to how you process information, how you process your role on a given team based on your experience levels. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to Launch Darkly for sponsoring today's episode. If you want to learn more, head over to launchdarkly.com. That's launch. D-A-R-K-L-Y.com. You can separate your features from your code and hopefully have a better night's sleep as a result. If you want to join the Discord community, the Developer Tea Discord community, you can send me a direct message on Twitter, twitter.com slash Developer Tea. I can also email me at Developer Tea at gmail.com and I will send you an invite to that Discord community. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.