Intuitive Decision-Making in an Age of Chaos

by Paul O’Brien,

Chaos and uncertainty are market opportunities for the wise.

— Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos

We live and work in an age of high anxiety. Human beings have always had their reasons to feel insecure, but things are qualitatively different now … change and its accompanying uncertainty have accelerated to chaotic levels. As Alvin Toffler’s seminal work, Future Shock, predicted in the early 1970s—and as events since then have unmistakably confirmed—the pace of change in our lives is not only inexorable, but speeding up exponentially.

Rapidly shifting conditions demand new strategies even as they also offer myriad new opportunities. In the process, we are challenged to make more and better decisions. This is good news and bad news.

Decision-making may be stressful, but it is arguably the single most important human activity there is. After all, we are the only species we know of that can visualize different possible outcomes following from different choices we might make. Doing this well pays off big time, which is why leaders and executives are afforded such power and paid royal sums. A president resists terrorists; a CEO makes a strategic decision that affects an entire market; an individual investor decides to sell short. Making skillful and timely choices is the most critical and highest-leverage thing a human being can do.

The quality and good timing of our decisions determines, more than anything else we can do, our success and happiness in life. But, even though human beings have this amazing capacity, we don’t seem to be very good at decision-making. We can easily be too emotional and impulsive about it or, on the other side, overly analytical and procrastinating.

During this chaotic “information age” the need for good decision-making is more urgent. Our media-bombarded brains are confronted with as many choices in a single year as our grandparents had to face in decades, and the fate of the entire world seems to depend upon the decision-making skill of leaders and democracies. The Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times, has come true—and with a vengeance.

Cope we must; prosper we can. Rapid change presents new choices and requires new responses. So, how can we learn to make life’s pivotal decisions more wisely?

The Limits of Reason

As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss.

—Noam Chomsky, TV interview, 1978

Ever since the Renaissance in the 1600s, the western world has glorified Reason—and started to look to scientific rationalism for the solution to most problems. The assumption was: sufficient data in, good answers out. Now, during the Information Age—with instant access to virtually unlimited data—it was surmised that logical decision-making would become easier as well as more convenient, a ‘slam dunk’ as it were.

Well, think again. In the process of weighing pros and cons, analyzing statistics, applying probability theory, or toying with computer models, logical analysis is only as good as the quality of the information available. And there’s the rub.

We’ve got too much information, and it’s virtually impossible to rationally differentiate the reliable from the bogus. And even the information we accept as true has a shorter shelf life; rapid change is going to make current information obsolete—and quickly. Overly logical decision-makers tend to delay decision-making while awaiting more information, but are liable to miss increasingly short-lived windows of opportunity. So, how do we determine which portions of available information are true or meaningful so that we can make the decisions that need to be made? The only answer is intuition.

Good decision-making is more an art than a science. Having harnessed powerful computers—the ultimate models of left-brain processing—we have become aware of the limitations of left-brained information processing. Can we now humbly admit that our commitment to any given course of action is based largely on gut-feel? Can we accept and appreciate a mode of thinking that is non-scientific?

Beyond Reason’s Realm

Intuition does not denote something contrary to reason, but something outside the province of reason.

— Carl Jung

If intuition is defined as something other than reason, little wonder that the concept is so grudgingly accepted in the modern age. Reason, after all, has reigned supreme since Francis Bacon declared, “Reason doth both buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things.”

Yet even the most casual observer of history can bear witness to our species’ sad legacy of attempts at making decisions by pure reason. When we try by means of reason alone to divine the workings of the universe—or even to conduct relationships with one another—we stumble. Does this mean we are destined to be the hapless captives of irrationality? Is all around us mere chaos, not subject to empirical examination and understanding?

Let’s be clear—logic and clarity of thought unquestionably play a significant role in the unraveling of nature’s secrets. Experience suggests, however, that something else helps us make useful discoveries—a faculty of knowing that takes place beyond the domain of rational processes. It’s called intuition.

Intuition exists outside the stream of ordinary thinking consciousness. It can present itself in many ways—from a vague hunch to a fully developed idea. It may arrive as a mathematical equation, as an invention or as simply a decision about the best path to take.

The question arises: Must we simply trust our gut feelings? Or can we find systematic ways to support or stimulate our intuitive function? Fortunately, a number of people—including prominent scientists and business leaders—have rediscovered ancient technologies for intuitive decision-making and creativity. One such system is an ancient Chinese oracle known as the I Ching.


Oracle Systems and Decision-Making

Not only did the I Ching fascinate psychologist Carl Jung, it also attracted the attention of his fellow scientists, the famous physicists Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein. Heisenberg, discoverer of the Uncertainty Principle, went so far as to have the yin-yang symbol—representing the binary polarity of the I Ching’s 64 patterns—added to his family’s coat-of-arms.

A more recent example from the world of business is Paul Wenner, a successful entrepreneur with a cause. In 1985, he founded Gardenburger, Inc. to provide a healthy fast-food alternative. Much sweat equity and thousands of decisions later, Gardenburger rose to become the world’s fastest growth stock in 1994. Today Paul is a multimillionaire, the author of a major book on vegetarianism and a booklet entitled Ten Secrets to Success.

One of Wenner’s secrets was the use of the I Ching in the form of a software program named Synchronicity—developed by my company, Visionary Networks—to stimulate intuition and support critical decision-making. Wenner stated, “The Synchronicity program played a major role in my company’s success and growth.”

A surprising number of people in the Western world use the I Ching oracle at work or at home as a method of centering themselves when engaged in negotiations—whether with a potential business partner or a teenage child. One customer of Visionary Networks claims to have closed a three-million-dollar deal using our I-Ching program to re-orient himself during lengthy negotiations. Before every meeting, he would consult the oracle on his PC to center himself and stimulate his intuition.

Mary R. uses a similar program every few days to help manage her attitude toward her erratic teenage daughter Amy. When Amy is not home on time, Mary is better able to remain composed after consulting the I-Ching oracle for a simple reflection on her state of mind.

Before we consider this modern application of an ancient technology, let’s take a look at one of the core principles that explains how an I-Ching consultation works.


The Principle of Synchronicity

[There is] a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality… synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.

—Carl Jung

Over the past several decades, the perceived gap between the empirical and the mystical has been closing. Major credit for bringing these two camps within hailing distance must go to the great Swiss-born psychologist Carl Jung, who introduced the West to the idea of meaningful coincidence, or “synchronicity.”

Jung’s work provides a backdrop for any serious exploration of intuition. Jung fearlessly explored the territory connecting scientific inquiry with a person’s inner experience, including the spiritual dimension. He highlighted the importance of symbolism—suggesting that symbols point to a deeper truth, and counseling us to interpret our own unique set of inner symbology, or “archetypes.”

In a 1952 essay entitled “Synchronicity, An Acausal Connecting Principle,” Jung contrasted the western mindset—influenced by early Greek philosophers who focused on details—with the eastern perspective, which views the detail as part of a whole, and each sharing the qualities of the gestalt of the whole situation.

To Jung, the eastern approach provided the more contemplative and holistic viewpoint, which was impossible for the unassisted intellect, prone as it is to linear thinking and tunnel vision. Jung pointed to a power of discernment that can take advantage of “the irrational functions of consciousness … sensation AND intuition.”

Jung’s enchantment with the I Ching was due to the way it codifies a method of grasping a situation not by listing and analyzing its components, but by viewing individual psychological elements in context, as part of a seamless whole. “There is no need of any criteria which imposes conditions and restricts the wholeness of the natural process… In the I Ching, the coins fall just as happens to suit them.”

When a person consults the I-Ching, they generally throw sticks or toss coins and record the way they land as a 6-line pattern called a “hexagram.” Naturally, we ask, how can any sort of truth be divined from such seeming happenstance? Two Chinese sages, King Wen and the Duke of Chou, devised the I Ching some 4,000 years ago to strengthen the connection between the psychic and physical realms. Today, we approach the I Ching prepared to resonate inwardly with one of its sixty-four archetypal patterns—an ability we call intuition. As Jung put it, the I Ching oracle interprets an “inner unconscious knowledge that corresponds to the state of consciousness at the moment.”

And so it is that an answer to a long-unsolved quandary can pop into our heads. Events oozing with connective portent can have no apparent causal relationship. Such moments are hardly random; something in the external world triggers our inner knowledge, and the two realities merge within our working mind. The I Ching offers us a way to produce this phenomenon, providing a universally accessible system that can be used deliberately with surprising results.

An Intuitive Renaissance

The I Ching, since its Western revival in the 1960s, has been categorized as “new age” in the popular media. It is, however, anything but new—having been used by emperors, sages, and ordinary people for some 3000 years. Today, this oracle continues to be put to practical use by psychotherapists, physicists, and by enlightened yet practical individuals.

As mentioned, greater anxiety afflicts us living in this Age of Chaos. Lacking the guidance of a trustworthy internal pilot, we founder in a bog of confusion, mistrust, cynicism, stress and indecision. No matter how adroit the voices of reason, they cannot seem to slake our thirst for answers that can guide us through the morass of misinformation and propaganda that bombards us.

Parched for guidance and wisdom, once again we turn to tools like the I Ching—a powerful divination system with an ancient and still revered pedigree—for clarity of insight and intuitive decision-making