One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was when I was a college sophomore and had to declare a major. I was terrified of making a "wrong" decision. They told me, simply, to "Study what you love. Opportunities will come to you."

That directive to follow my heart was incredibly freeing. A load was lifted from my shoulders, and to this day, I practice what my husband and I refer to as "the law of momentum". We made up that term. For us, it just means, you keep going through the door that opens, rather than banging on a door that may be shut to you. It could be that you're not naturally gifted in a particular area, or that it feels more like work than fun. In short, you know you are following your internal nudge, or intuition, when there is more of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow, which is at the core of creativity.

As a college professor I see too many people who practice the habit of ignoring the internal nudge, instead of the habit of obeying the nudge, that internal voice. College is too expensive and life is too short to not obey the nudge imperative. If your heart is telling you to study painting and not accounting, then do it- and vice versa.

William Duggan has written about the three types of intuition that spark human achievement in a business context in Strategic Intuition: 1) ordinary intuition, which is very instinctual; 2) expert intuition, which comes in the form of a trained response; and 3) strategic intuition, which is commonly referred to as a flash of insight. My default is to practice all three, whenever possible! It is no accident that some of the entrepreneurs we look up to the most, were those who kept following the nudge to do something based on an instinct, not based on evidence of what was physically manifest. For example, Steve Jobs' decision to study calligraphy for 18 months at Reed College consequently made him more attuned to aesthetic detail and subtlety as a technologist.

Now granted, following your heart and obeying the internal nudge can often feel like a luxury. How do you pursue that path when there are bills to pay and expectations from parents/family/society (fill in the blank) to which you feel compelled to live up to? Indeed, following your heart doesn't initially seem to be the path of least resistance.

Here are 5 reasons why it is imperative that you follow your internal nudge:

  1. Intuition gets sharper with more use. The internal nudge is intuition, and intuition at its basic form is all about pattern recognition. It is a form of human radar, and it gets dull if you continually ignore it and push it aside. Intuition gets clearer, more reliable and more melodious the more regularly you tune into it. Intuition is at the heart of many a brilliant business decision, joint venture and exit strategy. Sometimes logic and rationale cannot supply the evidence we need to make a move forward, backwards or sideways.
  2. Regret sucks. Ever made a decision, small or large, to not follow your heart and then wondered "What if?" It's not a good feeling. Whenever I am at that crossroads I try to imagine myself in the scenario "A" where I gave it a try, and then the scenario "B" where I did not. Whichever one I can envision myself happiest, is the path I take. Typically it is the choice to go for it, scenario "A", because I think regret is one of the worst emotions in the world.
  3. Gain respect and admiration at unexpected times and places. Obeying the internal nudge forces you to practice new habits of honoring who you are- versus honing the practice of procrastination. I admire young people who at an early age decide to swim upstream and not, for example, go straight away to college if that was an option on the table. Take the case of Grace Jay-Benjamin whose confessional of the joys and perils of following her internal nudge and not go to college were documented in Philadelphia Magazine.
  4. It will catch up with you. If you don't follow your heart, it is not like following the path of least resistance gets easier. Not obeying the internal nudge just makes you more numb and complacent with a nagging feeling that something is amiss. Why go through that at the end of your life, when you could face it head-on in youth or middle age? It is never too late to stop, be still, take stock, and begin listening to that inner voice.
  5. Acute clarity about who you are and where you are. When you practice obeying your internal nudge, you'll be happier, and so will those around you. You will have a clear and unapologetic sense of purpose while simultaneously craft an openness and expectancy with ordinary encounters. What better way to work with others or lead a new venture!

I am so happy that I decided to study Anthropology and Africana Studies those years ago! No one ever had to tell me to work harder, get up earlier or stay later. And that lens continues to serve me well in my work today. When you follow the internal nudge, you develop a magnetic energy and opportunities really do come to you. You might say it's a practice that could save your life.

Published on: Jan 29, 2015