Trust your gut. Retreat. Sacrifice certainty.
“There are times in our lives when the careful consideration of costs and benefits just doesn’t seem like the right way to make a decision. There are times…where a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate. Where a particular course of action just feels right.” The life of Blake Stanfill has been one characterized well by the above quote from Apple CEO Tim Cook. In Blake’s recent Peer Perspectives on Leadership presentation he discussed how, through a series of inflection points in his life, he has come to realize that it is when facing life’s important decisions that trusting one’s intuition seems to matter the most.
However, there is a distinction between basing life decisions on feelings versus being able to trust your gut to make the right decision. What is intuition? Blake characterized it as the instinctive feeling that you have in response to a stimulus, anchored in actual, formative experiences from life. But how does one learn to trust intuition versus a more rational approach? Blake directly addressed the steps he took through a path of self-discovery that led to a framework useful in determining the right course of action to take as a leader. First, Blake discussed how critically important it is to understand where you came from and who you are in order to learn to trust your instincts. As a child, Blake was very intellectually curious, often carrying around a yellow Webster’s dictionary given to him as a stocking stuffer. Fueled by his insatiable curiosity, he knew early on he would not be content doing what most of his classmates did after graduation, staying in Louisiana, going with the flow of life in his home city’s “Big Easy” way. Instead, he headed to Duke, where he focused his studies in psychology.
Upon arriving at Duke, he decided to pledge for a fraternity, against the advice and best intentions of his family and friends. It was through this experience that Blake learned the importance of sacrificing certainty. He was told his fraternity experience would be unlike anything he had ever done and he was challenged physically, emotionally, and spiritually more than ever before. Through this, he gained a more profound understanding of his own self and learned to balance self-confidence with humility. He learned that listening to himself, no matter what others might think, was key to knowing who you are and being able to make the right decision.
As graduation from Duke approached, Hurricane Katrina hit Blake’s home city of New Orleans. The horrific storm devastated his community, his neighbors, and his family. Faced with the opportunity of staying away from the chaos and instead securing a job at Wall Street, Blake intuitively felt that he needed to return home to help his community rebuild. Blake listened to his intuition and took the time during the long drive home to explore why he was giving up his career goals. He discovered that much of his desire to return home came from the lessons he learned early on from his family. Blake’s father, who had grown up in the same Tennessee community where the KKK was created, taught the importance of community, loyalty, and responsibility to one’s family. In many ways, New Orleans was just as fundamental to Blake’s identity as his own name and his intuition to return home to help was driven by this connection. In school, Blake read the works of many civil rights leaders and repeatedly came across the theme of, “if not me, then who? If not now, then when?” Over the next two years, living out of a FEMA trailer with his family, Blake worked to rebuild his community, primarily through serving as an administrator and teacher at an historic New Orleans high school. The children he taught sometimes had to drive 120 miles just to get to school, but Blake was able to make the classroom a relief for these children. By sacrificing the certainty of a job on Wall Street, he was able to grow personally, to further develop his work ethic and sense of responsibility, and help develop the twelve-year-old students he had come to cherish working with so much.
Blake eventually left New Orleans to pursue his original desire to work in finance. However, after working for Bank of America in both Tampa and Los Angeles, something continued to pull him back to New Orleans. It was also around this time Blake had his first son and also lost his grandfather, a profound inspiration to him. After giving the eulogy for his grandfather at the funeral, Blake noticed there was a void in his life. He realized he was not where he needed to be as a person, a new father, and a member of his community. With the support of his family and a close friend, he decided to take a retreat to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Colorado. Through practiced meditation, he gained a further understanding of who he is and what drives him. He again felt a strong drive to return to his community in New Orleans. He decided to go back and this time worked in the administration of Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu as a Mayoral Fellow in the Economic Development department, where he played a key role in the formation of the city’s first economic development public-private partnership. Although he had given up a more comfortable lifestyle in the finance industry, he had found a tremendous way to impact the citizens of New Orleans. He had trusted his gut, retreated to find the drive behind his intuition, and embraced the uncertainty of life.
What does this all have to do with the Wharton life? Not all decisions can or should be made through intuition, but time and again, the biggest decisions in life seem to be the least logical and rational. Some may be facing decisions now concerning internships. For others, the tough life decisions may come in a year, five years, or ten years from now. Listen to yourself and what your intuition is telling you to do. Step back and limit the noise. Understand the reasons why your intuition is pulling you one way or the other. Embrace the uncertainty that life can bring – it is through sacrificing certainty that one gains the largest opportunity for growth and impact.
Blake’s Peer Perspectives on Leadership video can be found at the following link: http://spike.wharton.upenn.edu/media/index.cfm?method=read&video_id=32560