In this episode, Steli and Hiten discuss what it means to trust your intuition and follow those gut feelings. Steli shares a story of how he followed his intuition when it came to a potential hire. Steli wasn’t feeling very great about this particular candidate, decided to act on these feelings, and do his due diligence regarding the candidate. What he found out confirmed the questions he had regarding the candidate and in turn, informed his decision to not hire this particular person. Tune in to find out the importance of knowing and trusting yourself when it comes to those gut feelings.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:04 – Steli introduces today’s episode about trusting your intuition
  • 00:59 – Steli explains why he wants to talk about intuition
    • 01:04 – Steli was on a call with someone who applied to work for them
    • 01:33 – The staff said he was skilled and likeable, but there was something off about him
    • 02:01 – Steli talked to him for an hour and the interview was fine, but Steli also felt weird about the guy
    • 02:36 – He felt weird because the guy was likeable, but Steli did not like him and he didn’t not know why
    • 03:01 – Steli’s intuition made him feel like the guy was not authentic
    • 04:02 – Steli asked the guy upfront that he wanted to know who he really is
    • 05:10 – The guy answered that he was with the military and learned how to communicate
  • 05:49 – Steli fought with his intuition
  • 06:15 – The guy said he was working for a company that Steli had connections with
    • 06:48 – Steli called the company’s founder to talk about the guy
    • 07:07 – The founder said he worked as a full time employee and then, suddenly disappeared after 2 months, without any communication
    • 08:01 – After 7 weeks, he sends in his laptop without any explanation
  • 08:35 – They did not hire this man
  • 09:16 – Steli thought that if he did not do his due diligence, he would have hired the guy and not trust his intuition
  • 10:18 – Hiten says Steli listened to his gut and did his due diligence
  • 10:29 – Steli says he got lucky, because he knew the founder of the company where the candidate was previously employed
  • 11:05 – People have different strategies for decision making
  • 11:50 – Hiten says anytime he gets a gut feeling, he follows it and does extra due diligence
  • 12:10 – You need to be very diligent when it comes to hiring someone new
  • 13:14 – Gut feelings about other people are usually bad feelings
  • 14:07 – Intuition is still based on life experience
  • 14:45 – Don’t just override your intuition with logic—keep on investigating because there is a reason why you have a bad feeling to begin with  
  • 15:18 – Either there is something hidden about that person or there is something hidden in you and you should uncover that
  • 16:20 – In business, you have to deal with your gut constantly
  • 17:04 – A lot of times, you have to listen to your gut first
  • 17:20 – Your vision comes from your gut
  • 17:53 – In a startup, all your decisions come from the gut
  • 18:37 – As a startup founder, you are able to move on your intuition and gut feelings
  • 18:51 – Just relying on data blankets you in a false sense of security, telling you that you are not making mistakes
  • 19:59 – The risk of trusting your gut and making a mistake is much lower than not trusting your gut
  • 20:44 – When you are not trusting your gut, it affects the way you communicate
  • 21:17 – The gut is powerful
  • 21:40 – Your gut feel can help make better decisions
  • 22:57 – Hiten shares how he is usually right about other people’s decisions, even if they’re making the wrong ones—based on the data
  • 23:47 – “Other people just need to listen to their gut better”
  • 24:38 – Steli’s therapist friend once told him that the person already knows the solution to his or her problems
  • 25:43 – In consultancy, you just have to help the person see the solution
  • 26:15 – The rational side versus the intuitive side described
  • 27:06 – Steli closes the episode  

3 Key Points:

  1. It is important to recognize what your gut is telling you and then, to follow it.
  2. Do your due diligence when making a decision; especially when it comes to new hires.
  3. Your gut can help you make better decisions—so, trust yourself.



Steli: Hey everyone, this is Steli Efti.



Hiten: And this is Hiten Shah.



Steli: Today on The Startup Chat I want to share a recent story, and I think what we’re going to end up talking about, Hiten, is this concept of trusting your intuition, especially when all the rational, logical reasons point against what your gut or your intuition is telling you. When your mind and your gut are at odds or at war with each other, how do you deal with that? I think trusting your intuition is oftentimes easy when the decision is easy to make, or when there’s some logical reason that you can justify why you feel weird or bad about something, but it’s very difficult when you don’t. Here’s why I want to talk about this with you. A few days ago, what happened is that I was on a call with a candidate, somebody that we were trying to hire, and that person had gone through, you know, we’re very rigorous in the hiring process, you have to talk to a lot of people, jump through a lot of hoops, we take our time and we give people a chance to really get to know us and we’re really deliberate about the interviewing and hiring process. For certain positions, when you get to talk to me you’ve gone through a lot already and the company is pretty sold on somebody, so I jump on a call with this engineer and I read all the notes that everybody prior had, and people really thought that he was amazing and skilled, his capabilities were really, really great and he seemed very likable, and I saw some comments where people were like, “There’s something a little weird here, but I don’t know, maybe it was just the interview or something.” I saw some of these comments and thought, okay, I’m going to make sure that I pay attention to this. I talked to this guy for an hour, and during the entire hour he just says all the right things, and he has great energy and he seems like a really cool person, and there’s nothing that I can point to for why I feel so weird about this guy. There’s just nothing there, I can’t say, “Oh, his body language …”



Hiten: It’s like a gut feeling?



Steli: It’s just pure gut.



Hiten: Is that what you’d call it, it’s just a gut feeling?



Steli: Gut, yeah. The thing that made me feel weird is here’s somebody that I should really, really like, but I don’t like him and I don’t know why. Usually, I can point my finger to something after an hour of talking to somebody, right? I can just come up with a story of what’s wrong here or why I’m not connecting. With this guy, I couldn’t. The only thing I could tell was that I was not sure, or I had the feeling that either he’s not authentic, either he’s just really good in this interaction but I’m not getting the truth or – and here we’re entering the moment where I’m doubting my intuition – because I don’t have good rational reasons why I don’t like this guy and I want to be humble, I’m trying to negotiate with my intuition, or I’m trying to come up with rational reasons why I’m probably wrong. I’m like, “Maybe it’s the interview setting, maybe this is just his personality, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that”, I’m debating, I’m trying to argue away my feeling about this person, but I can sense that I’m just not getting over it. In the one hour mark, I’m like, “Well, fuck it, I might as well be honest here”, and he asks me, he says, “Is there anything, any concern that you have, anything that you want to bring up?” I’m like, “You know, I’m going to ber really honest with you, everybody likes you, everybody thinks you’re really good at what you’re doing, I really like you, but I can’t get over the feeling that there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it is the nervousness of the interview, maybe it is hard to be fully yourself when you’re interviewing with somebody, but I have the feeling that you’re this perfect version of yourself, and maybe highly polished, and I just want to get the real you. I’m not sure if I’ve gotten that yet. I know that this is a weird thing to bring up in an interview and it’s tough for you to respond to this, but I want to be honest and transparent on how I feel at this very moment.” I’m bringing this up, I’m trying to be honest, and he responds to it in a little bit of a weird way. He’s like, “Yeah, well I appreciate the honesty, but it’s an interview and some people get nervous, some people get this, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge them on that.” I’m like, “No, no, no. See, if you were nervous, I’d like you, I like it more I think. It’s just that you’re so perfect, I don’t expect you to not be nervous, I don’t expect you to be this super-human, so I get that.” Then he tells me this weird little thing, where he’s like, “Well, you know maybe it’s the time that I had in the military”, and then he says one sentence, it was kind of offhand comment about some secret missions he was on, or something weird like that, where he learned to be communicating in a certain room and at certain times, and it’s hard for him to leave that behind. Something kind of weird and not really convincing. But again, we finished the phone call, and in my mind I’m arguing with my intuition. I’m like, “Well, maybe it’s just his personality, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that, everybody liked him, he’s really good, maybe I’m wrong.” Typically I am fairly trusting of my intuition, but I just can’t get over that, but then the thing is this: We have this episode, let me bring it up, about how to do due diligence, and this is one of my favorite episodes because this is something I think most entrepreneurs, most startups, do really well. It’s Episode 134: How To Do Due Diligence On People. He had worked, he told me he had consulted, he was a consultant to a company that I know really, really well, and in our interview he was wearing a t-shirt with their logo, he was wearing that company’s t-shirt logo. I hang up the call and I’m debating with myself, so I’m thinking I’m going to call the founder of that company and see if I can get any kind of information about him. I text the founder, “Hey, do you have 5-10 minutes? I’d love to chat with you about so-and-so, he’s interviewing with us.” The founder responses, “Yes, call me in 5 minutes.” I call him and here’s the story that I get from that founder. I call the founder and he tells me, “Listen, stereotypically I would never talk about people that have worked here before, this is company policy, but we’re really good friends, I’ve known you for a long time, I’ll tell you our experience with him and then I’ll let you be the judge of this.” He was hired as a full time employee, so this is the first red light; he told us he was a consultant, never that he worked there as an employee. He was hired as a full time employee, he seemed really capable but a little weird, but he was like, “You know, all developers are weird”, so I didn’t think too much about that. He’s like, “He comes here and works here for two months, and then he disappears”, he’s like, “Just one day, he stopped showing up. Nothing, no email, no call, doesn’t reply to our messages, just vanishes. First week, we’re like maybe there was an emergency, maybe he’s sick, second week we start worrying, should we call the police? Maybe something happened.” There’s no communication channel that they’re able to connect with him, and they’re not getting anything. It’s just radio silence. He just vanishes. Seven weeks after him vanishing from that company, he mails in his corporate laptop. Again, no note, no message, no explanation, nothing, just his laptop shows up, and he’s like, “This was six, seven months ago, I’ve never heard from him again. This is the weirdest thing anyone has ever done, he just disappeared, we have no clue why, what happened, it’s super, super weird.” I just had my mind blown in that moment, I was just like … Well, okay there’s a lot to unpack here, but that’s my story. I hang up and obviously I do a little bit more due diligence and we decide to not make an offer, but what keeps me busy with this story, there’s two parts. One is that it blows my mind that you would show up at an interview with a logo of a company that – he had done a lot of research on me, he knew I knew these guys. He talks to me about how much they loved him, he talks to me about that he did consulting there. A rational, normal human being I assumed would just, if they did something like this, would just take it off their CV and never talk about that, but he was very proactive, which blows my mind. Maybe there’s a mental issue here, I don’t know what it is. Then the second thing is that I was like, “Wow, if I didn’t have that background due diligence channel, we would have made an offer probably.” I would have overridden my gut, and it’s such a rare thing for me to do, because usually when I have an intuition that speaks against somebody, I have some kind of logic that I can add to it that makes me feel okay about trusting my intuition, but in this case there was just so much evidence that this person was amazing, there was nothing I could really point to why I didn’t like him or why I felt that something was off. In that moment, I think I would have tended to not trust in my intuition because it was hard for me to justify that, and justify that with the team or with other people in the company, and that bothers me, or that makes me think about this concept of always trusting your intuition, maybe especially when you don’t have rational reasons why you feel a certain way. Maybe then especially you should trust it, I don’t know. I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on this and kind of unpack this topic together.



Hiten: You listen to your gut, right? You don’t just listen to your gut and just say no, you listened to your gut and did more diligence, that’s what I’m hearing, right?



Steli: Yes, but I’m wondering if I got a little lucky with this as well, because I had a friend at a company he worked at that would tell me this, versus if we’d done normal background checks with companies that maybe did have a different experience with him or maybe were not as honest and were just giving a boilerplate, “Yes, we’re happy, he worked here for seven months”, maybe we would have made an offer. I’m not exactly sure how much of this was luck, or how much of this was me doing the right thing of just doing a lot more homework after my gut was unconvinced about him.



Hiten: Yeah, this is a fascinating one. So many people have such different strategies in life, and I’m going to go all the way there, and what I mean by that is you can’t just tell everyone, “Hey, listen to your gut and go make a decision on it”, because that’s a pretty generic statement, right?



Steli: Yeah.



Hiten: Then it’s like what if your gut’s wrong? Everyone questions that. What I really like about this is if something feels off and you can’t explain it, you’ve got to do something about it. If you can’t explain and then you make the decision of hiring the person, it’s likely something might go wrong, but you couldn’t explain this feeling you had, and then you made a decision against the feeling. I don’t want to simplify this thing too much, but to me any time I have a gut feeling and it’s off, these days I just listen to it. If I still feel a little weird, like, “Oh no, maybe I should hire the person, I don’t know”, then just the only answer is just go figure out a lot more information, especially because you’re talking about a hiring scenario. I think you and I have talked about this before, people don’t do enough diligence.



Steli: Yeah.



Hiten: It’s as simple as that. People don’t do enough diligence, and when your gut feel is off, it’s likely it should just be a no in the hiring process. It’s almost like your brain is catching up to your gut, so the way to make your brain catch up to your gut is do your diligence and just get verification that this is not a good idea, because usually the gut feeling is something that’s usually a negative thing. That’s just the way that most people produce it.



Steli: Well, that’s an interesting question. Yeah, that’s probably true, although I would say that sometimes you’re just really excited about somebody although there’s not a lot of evidence they’re going to be amazing. Sometimes within a few seconds, your intuition tells you this person is amazing, or the chemistry with this person is going to be really great, or something, that there’s an opportunity here that your intuition is catching up much faster to than you’re able to collect rational evidence to support that. But you’re right, when it comes to people, when somebody says, “I had a gut feeling about a person”, usually it’s probably a bad thing.



Hiten: Yeah, you know what I mean. I don’t hear people say, “I had a gut feeling”, I hear more people say, “I had a gut feeling” in a negative way than a positive way.



Steli: That is true. Well, that’s another question, it’s an interesting question; why is that? Why don’t we have more good gut feelings about people? Maybe it’s because in most interactions people are trying to overcome or not truly display their intentions or their capabilities, hence why there’s so much bad signals that pop up on our human-to-human level, but yeah, I agree with you. I don’t want to say that the lesson here is for everybody just always trust your intuition, because I truly believe that intuition is still based on your life experience to a certain degree, and your skills and knowledge. It’s really rapid-fire pattern recognition, and so if you don’t have a lot of experience hiring people, if you don’t have a lot of experience in communicating with people and if you don’t have a good track record of being right with your intuition about a certain subject, then I wouldn’t tell you to just generically always trust your gut feeling about everything. Because there’s certain things where you haven’t created enough data in your brain for your gut to be accurate, maybe, or to be fine-tuned. Maybe the lesson here is as simple as when your intuition tells you no about a person, don’t just override it with logic, try to keep investigating because there’s a very high likelihood that there’s a reason why you feel a certain way. Think about it, if all the rational reasons point to yes and you have a bad feeling, the question, I think it’s a really legitimate and important question to ask why? There must be something there, and what is that? Either it’s something hidden with that other person that the data doesn’t show and you should uncover that, or to be self-aware, maybe it’s something hidden within yourself that you should uncover. Maybe you have a huge bias against a certain type of person, you’re not aware of it, but there’s something. Otherwise, if all rational things say yes, there’s no reason why you should have a bad feeling about somebody, there must a reason. Bad gut reactions don’t just fall from the skies, it’s not like stumbling over a stick or a stone in the park, there is something and you just don’t understand what that is. I think maybe the simple lesson here is to never stop until you have uncovered what is that. It could be with a person, it could be with yourself or with something else, but you should uncover what is creating that feeling versus just trying to override it, which is usually never working.



Hiten: It’s a very interesting topic, because in business you just end up dealing with this constantly, in almost every decision, if you really think about it. It’s not just about hiring, especially when you’re starting from nothing, you’re creating something from nothing and you need to have a lot of conviction on what you’re doing, a lot of times you don’t have enough data. If you don’t find a way to listen to your gut, or verify it or make some decisions based on your gut, what are you doing? That’s where I’m coming from on this one, where it’s like most of what you do is gut, and your brain is just catching up later. Basically, a lot of times you have to listen to your gut first, and a lot of this has to do with even some simple things like what’s the next thing I should do? Not just, “Should I hire this person or not?” but, “What’s the next thing we should do in our business?” There’s an unlimited amount of possibilities and all the data in the world won’t necessarily help you make the right decision if you don’t have some kind of gut feel. This is even where vision comes from, your vision comes from your gut, it comes from this idea that you think you can change the future in this way. Is the data going to show you that you can do that? Not really.



Steli: Not really, yeah.



Hiten: Yeah, that’s why I wanted to take it there, because I think this is such an important topic. I haven’t heard anyone talk about this, because everyone wants to talk about, “Well, we’re making the right decision, we used a bunch of data”, but at the end of the day, all the decisions are based on gut in a startup. You’re just catching up with data, and it’s the founders that are making those gut decisions and those gut calls, and the data is just used to inform the gut, or verify that it was right or wrong. You’ll notice, just not wrong, it’s a gut feel, how can it even be wrong?



Steli: I think that if you’re able to, in a startup as you said, most of the time you’re not going to have the time and the data to make perfect decisions. Whatever you can do to be able to make good, or good enough, decisions at a really fast pace, is going to help you and make you really competitive and increase the chances of success. As a startup founder, if you’re able to move on intuition, on your gut, on instinct, not to say that you shouldn’t try to verify if possible to see if you’re biased in some way and you need to correct yourself, or if you’re wrong, but if you’re always trying to make sure that everything is supported by a mountain of evidence before you take action – and I see this often times and I’m sure you do too – the only thing that that does is it tries to blanket the founder in this false sense of security that they’re not making mistakes and that they’re going to be able to justify and defend their decisions in front of investors, their team, themselves. We are so data-driven, everything we do is based on fact, and that’s great, there’s nothing against that, but if that’s the only way you can make decisions or the primary way you make all decisions, especially in the super early days when you just don’t have that much data or resources, you’re going to be going very, very slowly and it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be succeeding. You’re going to go on instinct in many, many ways and be okay with making mistakes, but trying to make them quickly and move on. I think on that, on the gut side, I think it’s probably most of the time if you think about risk, the risk of making a mistake, I would say that 99% of the time the risk of trusting your gut and making a mistake is much lower than the risk of not trusting your own gut and trying to go with something and then making a mistake. If you have a weird feeling about something, you have conflict and misalignment, which means that even if you’re moving forward with a person or a thing or a strategy, every single moment you’re moving forward with it there’s conflict. Even if it’s just within yourself, which will mean that you will not execute on this, or work with this person, at the best possible way or in the best possible form to help succeed. People can sense if you truly like them or not, people will sense if you truly believe in a strategy or not, so when you’re not trusting your gut and you have this weird feeling, it affects the way you communicate, it affects the way you think, you affects the way you work. Drastically decreases your chances of success. Versus if you’re fully aligned with yourself, with your own gut, with your intuition, even if you’re going in the wrong direction at least you’re going really fast and you’re going in a convincing way, and hopefully in a way where you’re going to uncover that you’re going wrong quickly and so you’re able to readjust and do something else.



Hiten: Yeah, I guess the gut’s so powerful. How about that?



Steli: Yeah.



Hiten: Even in scenarios for me where, you know, picking an investor, gut has been pretty responsible for that just because in that case, you just can’t make a good decision, especially when you have the pleasure of options. When making a hire, and when I have different options, it actually makes the gut feelings easier. Let’s say you had three head of sales that you were interviewing, all of them seem pretty good on paper, none of them were too far off, your gut feel could probably help you make a better decision.



Steli: Have you ever-,



Hiten: And-,



Steli: Oh, go ahead.



Hiten: Go ahead, no please.



Steli: I was just curious, can you remember a time where you made a decision, let’s say people related, doesn’t matter if it’s an investor, partner in a business or a hire, where your gut was slightly off on this person or there’s something that was off in your gut, but you still moved ahead and then in hindsight you were like, “Oh”, two months, two weeks, two years into it, you looked back and you go, “Oh, I knew it. My intuition from the get-go knew that would probably be a problem, and I didn’t listen to it as carefully as I should”? Have you been super in-tune with that for a really long time, or can you remember a time where you made that kind of a mistake?



Hiten: What do you mean by that?



Steli: Like taking money from an investor where your gut wasn’t saying this is going to be perfect, and then it turned out that that investor was not a good investor, or hiring somebody that didn’t work out because you didn’t trust your gut.



Hiten: I’ll tell you what works for me, and again I think this might be individualistic, but I’m actually able to do that for other people really, really fast. What I mean is I am 100% of the time right about someone else’s decision, even when they’re making the wrong one. If you told me, “Hey, there’s these five investors”, and you just gave me some small amount of information about them, even if it wasn’t very detailed, I could probably tell you who’s going to screw you.



Steli: Yeah, I’ve noticed that.



Hiten: I don’t know what it is, but what I feel like is in daily life, I’m not put in enough situations to say, “Okay”, especially in the investor case, “the gut feels right”, that I have enough data points. But I do have enough data points for other person when I look at it, and I think this is such an interesting conversation, because one of the things is other people just need to listen to their gut better. Most of what I do when I talk to someone or advise is help them understand their gut in a way where I’m not using that word. The reason is people use language, right? They say, “Oh you know, this person is asking for all these things, this investor is asking for all these things, they haven’t even committed or given me a terms sheet yet or said how much money they’re going to give me, but they’re asking for all these things.” I’m like, “Okay, so do you want to give them those things?” They’re like, “No, I don’t want to give them those things.” They can’t explain why they don’t want to give it to them, give that information, they think it’s logical, like, “Oh, the person is just asking for all this stuff, I don’t want to give it to them”, but if it was someone they really trusted and they had a good gut feel, they’d give them all the information, right?



Steli: I love that. You know, that reminds me of a therapist friend of mine who is really amazing at what he does, I remember him telling me this fifteen years ago and it blew my mind and I really had to struggle with it, but now I totally believe in what he said back then, which was that almost every single person that comes to him with a problem, no matter how devastating the problem, no matter how soul-crushing it is, no matter how challenging it is, the solution is already in that person. The person already knows the answer to the question, already knows the solution to the problem, already knows what needs to happen and what he or she needs to do, and it’s not his job to offer them solutions or offer them ways to overcome it, it’s his job to help them uncover that in themselves and then believe in that, to be able to go with it. He was like, “You don’t have to help people with their problems, you have to help them to believe in their own intuition, in what’s already in them as a solution that they’re unsure about most of the time.” It’s the same thing in consulting, it’s the same thing in many areas in life where people come to you with problems, but if you’re good at giving advice or if you’re good at helping other people, which you are, you’re amazing at that, then you know that 99% of the time you don’t really have to solve the problem for them. You just have to help them see the solution, and they already knew it before, but they were for a variety of reasons not really to accept it, or to give with it or trust it.



Hiten: Right, yeah. They’re probably using their brain too much.



Steli: The conscious side, maybe, the rational side versus the intuitive subconscious side of things. That’s potentially a subject for another time. I’ll think we’ll wrap this up. This is one of these things where something happens in the day to day in the business, and I know it bothers me or it keeps me busy and I’m trying to think more distinctly about how I think about gut and instinct and when to trust it and when not, and how I react in real life versus what I would tell other people how to do things or tell even myself, and then I always know and I’m always grateful that I have sparring partner to talking about this with and dissect it and look at this thing. We know based on the feedback and the emails that all you listeners are sending us that often times this is helpful and it tackles problems that you guys struggle with as well. Right, I think this is it for us for this episode.



Hiten: Yep, see you.



Steli: See you guys.