You know how they say your first instinct tends to be the right one? That’s because your first instinct comes from a very primal part of your brain. The part that drives your intuition and connects you to nature. Your first instinct tends to be the right one because your second instinct isn’t an instinct at all. It is a logical override of your natural desire, that governs not through your true nature, but through ideas about how things are supposed to be.
Malcolm Gladwell illustrates this brilliantly in his famous TED Talk on Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce: “A critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want, deep down. If I asked all of you in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say, ‘I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.’ It’s what people always say when you ask them. ‘What do you like?’ ‘Dark, rich, hearty roast!’ What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? …Somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that ‘I want a milky, weak coffee.'”
It’s not that we’re incapable of knowing what we want, it’s that what we want is so often swayed by what we think we’re supposed to want. Our idea of how good coffee is supposed to be, influences what we think we want in coffee.
When I was in my teens and early 20s and looking for a girlfriend, what I thought I wanted were women like the ones men wanted on TV and in the movies. They were all thin and sexy and physically flawless with the help of lighting and makeup. I didn’t run into many women like this in the real world, but when I did they didn’t seem to gravitate to me anyway. So I thought I needed to become a better me so that they would. However when I tried to do the things that would make me more desirable to them, I quickly lost motivation. Almost as if the Universe was whispering to me, “this isn’t your true path.”
On the other hand, when I would go to parties and get drunk, the alcohol would switch off the part of my brain that was overriding my primal desires, and my natural instincts would reign free. Instead of being quiet and reserved, I was loud and gregarious. Instead of thinking I should be holding out for someone who looked like a movie star, I realized I was attracted to a much wider variety of women.
There were multiple women that I hooked up with and could have had a relationship with, but I didn’t because sober me thought somebody else might judge me for being with them. I wasn’t just looking for a woman who was attractive to me, I was looking for a woman who was attractive to everyone. My mind was still rooted in this school-age level of maturity where I was trying to avoid doing anything that might expose me to being made fun of, and trying to gravitate toward things that would make me look cool. So I was governing my love life not based on where my desires were calling me, but by what my mind thought would make me the most lovable in the eyes of a third party.
This didn’t change until May of 2010 when I decided to do a 30 day experiment to overcome my fear of rejection and looking bad. In that experiment I sought to reverse all the things that were holding me back. Every day I would risk rejection and looking bad in some way, and then I’d blog about it every night. Not only that, but I decided to reverse my pattern of hiding myself by adding the caveat that, “Whenever I thought a scary thought (something I would normally never share because someone might judge me for it) I had to share it on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.”
That last part caused huge changes in my life instantaneously. The freedom that I felt from my newfound honesty was so great that within three days I had basically run out of scary thoughts to share. Over the course of 30 days several of my old friendships ended, while new ones were forged in their place. The most important thing I learned was that I was lovable just the way I was. And since that’s true, maybe it’s OK to love others just the way they were as well.
Less than six months after launching that experiment I had my first girlfriend, and over five years later I’m still with her today. It turns out that the problem with thinking you want something that you don’t is that you’ll say “no” to what you really want even if it’s right in front of you.
Learning to Follow Your First Impression
From 16 to 26 I wanted a girlfriend, and didn’t allow myself to have one. My desires were guiding me directly to what I wanted at every turn, but I was tuning them out in favor of what I thought I wanted.
You probably have something similar in your life right now. Something you’ve desired for a long time, but haven’t found a way to allow in. I bet you that if you decide to start looking at everything you think you know about it with fresh eyes, and simply follow your first impression, you will quickly be led in the direction of where you want to go.
If you’re feeling good right now and want to milk this feeling, feel free to bask in it as long as you’d like. Or if you’re up for going even deeper, continue on to this week’s exercise: Getting to the Core of Your Desires