How Experience Turns Into Instinct

How to make changes without regret when life throws you a curveball.

Posted Mar 25, 2019

Last Saturday night I was relaxing at home with my wife, watching one of our favorite TV shows “Ransom.” The program is a decent weekly drama in which the main character, Eric Beaumont (played by Luke Roberts) is a private negotiator who tries to rescue kidnap victims and hostages by using his head rather than violence or payoff. In this particular episode, Beaumont was trying to save the life of a kidnapped boy. The scenario placed him under considerable stress because circumstances of the boy’s abduction required he change the way he normally did his work, and Beaumont was resistant to that. Changing from his usual mode of action was a huge stressor for Beaumont because he knew from a devastating past experience that went horribly wrong, deviations from his norm did not turn out well.

Concerned that any unsuitable actions on his part could eventuate in the boy’s death, Beaumont sought advice from a friend, a clinical psychologist. He confessed to the friend he was nervous about changing the way he normally handled cases, and he asked the friend what she thought he should do. The response the friend gave blew me away. Her advice was so simple, so in line with the advice I give in my book “On Call in the Arctic” that I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed my DVR remote, hit pause, and scribbled down as much of the dialogue as I could. Here’s the gist of what she said.

“Given enough time, experience turns into instinct. You’ve been doing this work a long while, so follow your gut and I know you’ll make the right decisions.”

Experience turns into instinct. What an elegant perfect way to describe the power of experience and how it relates to instinct. And with this fictional drama, the message was even more powerful because, even though Beaumont’s instinct told him change was necessary, he feared doing so could cost the kid his life.

People do not like change.

In her January 2012 blog for Huffpost.com, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., cited several studies that suggested people not only fear change, they believe when something has been done in a particular way for an extended period of time, but the way it’s been done must also be the right way to do it. She also suggested people believe the longer something has been done one particular way the better it is. Dr. Halvorson cleverly worded it as longevity = goodness.

But change is often necessary and often it can be good. Change moves us forward—especially when new trends evolve, attitudes change, people’s perceptions are altered, and technology advances.

I’m reminded of a time many years ago when ‘Managed Care and HMOs’ became the trend in medicine. Physicians all around the country were encouraged (and often forced because of financial concerns) to give up the independence of their private medical practices and join an HMO where often decisions regarding patient care were made, not by themselves, but by non-physician office workers following algorithms, actuary tables, and spreadsheets. Office people, not doctors, used these didactic ‘accounting methods’ to make decisions regarding patient care—essentially the approval or disapproval for the treating doctor to perform surgery or order of a particular test or x-ray. Many physicians adapted to the change—some with ease, others with a grudge. They did this, not because they wanted to, but because it was necessary to preserve their patient numbers. Others, because they felt the old way of practicing medicine was the only way to go, refused. And I remember one-by-one these doctors eventually going out of business because they failed to recognize the need to change in order to survive.

Making changes, especially when life throws us a curveball, need not be difficult. The first step is to trust the fact that experience turns into instinct. Next, we must be flexible in our thinking and improvise when we must. Finally, by adjusting our thinking and looking into alternatives, we must be confident our instinct, based up our experience and training, will tell us what path to follow.

In the Arctic, I was forced to change the way I practiced medicine because my conventional training and minimal experience let me down. I was expected to deliver my own child because I was the only doctor in town, do surgery under flashlight illumination and without proper anesthesia, travel by air and snow-machine through treacherous skies and unforgiving terrain to meet the challenges. I had to perform feats of medicine and surgery far beyond what I ever believed myself capable because it was well beyond how I was trained. All I was left to work with was my instinct.

We all have the ability to make a change and the power to keep fear from letting us fail to meet our challenges. To achieve our goals, we need to be flexible in our thinking, improvise when we must, and persevere until the task is done. When we are able to attack change without fear using these principles of adaptation, we have the ability to achieve success far beyond our wildest dreams and imagination.