How to Use Both Your Wits in a Startup

by Ben Huh1/18/2017

It’s good to be a robot entrepreneur.

Being all logic and no emotions, you can make hard decisions with ease. You hire the right people based on the correct metrics. You make difficult calls with the deftness of Occam’s Razor. You fire poor performers without any emotional baggage. You’re a machine.

You may wish you could rely solely on logic, but that is only half of what you need to be a good founder.

Startup culture places immense value in our logical thought process. I do too. But without incorporating both sides of your brain in your decision-making (slow logic and fast intuition), you risk being swept down the river when the dam of startup stress bursts.

While I was the CEO of Cheezburger, I found a competitor who was growing faster than us. I had developed a healthy way of dealing with competitors (watch, learn, ignore), but this competitor had arrived so out of the blue, I felt panicked. A couple of days later, I pushed the “emergency button” on my company, ratcheting up launch schedules, cancelling vacations, authorizing unsustainable spending and hiring. The threat of an existential competitor drove me to make decisions from a position of fear. That blinded me from seeing the degree of pressure and risks I was applying to my company. At the time, I felt like I was making good logical decisions, admittedly under duress. Pushing my team felt like leadership, but the truth was far from it. The threat never materialized, but the harm I did to the quality of our product, morale, and my credibility was deep. But, as I held down the emergency button, I remember a pestering voice in the back of my head saying: “You’re creating a false crisis. This does not feel right.”

My intuition was right. My fears made it easier for my logic to override my instinct.

How could I have handled this situation differently? I should have leaned into the most influential tool in my decision-making toolbox: my gut feelings (or call it intuition, or emotion, or sixth-sense).

Ignoring your intuition is like ignoring half the job of being a decision-maker. It is time that we dispel the myth that your “gut feeling” or that “hunch” is something other than the work of the brain. I cannot count the number of times founders have told me about the terrible hire they made despite their intuition or the deal they signed “that wanted to make them hurl.” In this culture, we’re so programmed to follow the logical part of our thought process that we’re willing to ignore the billions of years of neurological evolution before the arrival of the prefrontal cortex.

To be a thoughtful, holistic decision-maker for your company, you must recognize that gut reaction and logic spring from the same source using two different tactics.

The science behind this is sound. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is the reference to understanding the role of these two systems in how we make up our minds. Kahneman divides our two thought processing systems and how they interact:

System 1: A fast, massively parallel engine that outputs results through intuition.
System 2: A slow, serialized engine that we can easily verbalize and call logic.

Neither System 1 or System 2 should be used in isolation. Both systems are susceptible to errors and even when they are used together, they can compound biases if left uncorrected. Most business training focuses on eliminating the negative impacts of our emotions (System 1). Despite that, we use the “I’ll take the evening to think about it” tactic. We use it because it works–sometimes. But that’s like relying on a drunk driver to get sober after a nap. Probably better than driving drunk, but it’s not an actual measure of sobriety. Instead of eliminating our intuition, we should be learning to train our massive parallel System 1 to help aid the slower logical System 2 process.

Thankfully, they can be trained using each other. Let’s take the example of a hiring process.

Out of 20 applicants for the VP of Product role, there is a candidate that you really favor. On paper, she’s not as experienced, nor did she go to the best school. Why is your intuitive System 1 telling you that she’s the right one? Lets apply your slow thinking System 2 to examine and adjust your entire decision-making process.

Step 0: Set the intention to examine your emotions.
Set the foundation to become more self-aware well before you arrive at key decision points. Self-awareness is a neurological muscle to be worked out regularly. Here is a short, self-awareness habit builder adapted from Power of Habits (Duhigg).
1. Cue: When you feel a strong emotion (Eg: stress, disappointment, euphoria)…
2. Routine: Add a task to do a simple post-mortem of your emotion and its sources.
3. Reward: When you complete the post-mortem, pat yourself on the back for prepping yourself against a future decision-making disaster. Pro-Tip: Popping a mint or doing a stretch helps reinforce the routine with a sensory positive reminder.

Step 1: What are you feeling?
Convert the System 1 output of intuition into System 2 language of words: “Her verbal cues remind me of my former boss, who was an amazing performer.” Or “her body language exudes confidence.” If you want a more systemic approach, this comprehensive chart of 20 cognitive biases I used as my iPhone screensaver is thorough, if not a little overkill.

Step 2: What is your mood?

“Mood evidently affects the operation of System 1: when we are uncomfortable and unhappy, we lose touch with our intuition… A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.” ― Kahneman.

Recognizing how your mood affects your perspective helps us bring the bias to the surface. Your emotional state is a key influencer in any process ― a hidden advisor who can give terrible or great advice depending on your ability to learn the context of the feedback. In my experience with Cheezburger’s existential competitor, I should have taken the time to separate my disappointment with my company’s progress (slow to ship, not enough experimentation, risk-aversion) from my fear of unknown competition. I should have been aware that operating from fear would make me lose touch with the intuitive lessons I learned about leadership and management.

Step 3: Feed the new data to your big data System 1.
Although our intuitive System 1 can output data quickly, it requires a large existing dataset to power it. Our logical System 2 requires minimal amount of data to work. For example, look at this word: “tmesis.” Your System 2 can quickly determine that a) you don’t know this word, and b) there is a way to find its meaning. Your intuitive System 1 quickly intuited its resemblance to the word “nemesis” or focus on the odd pairing of T and M. Your fast System 1 response is driven from years of looking and pattern matching. It’s important to recognize that both your Systems are operating at the same time. Always. You didn’t have to search a mental index of all the words you know to realize that you haven’t seen “tmesis”, your System 1 immediately gave you a high probability answer quickly. (Tmesis is the separation of a compound word by adding a word or words.)

It takes a long time (and a lot of data) to reprogram your intuitive System 1. That’s why personal biases take a while to change. Now that you have surfaced your biases, and verbalized your intuitions, find a calm, quiet moment to commit that error correction to your memory before making the decision. In the hiring example, should the fact that she sounds like your former boss apply in her favor? Will her confident body language make a material difference in her role?

In this last step, skipping to the decision won’t do. In order to add data and update your Systems, you must finish the learning loop. Commit the errors you found in your own decision-making process to memory. This is what trains your systems to reduce the bias next time.

This is a small preview of understanding how our emotions and brain chemistry affects our performance. But this simple 4-step process can be applied to any decision that you can arrest before jumping to an overly logical or intuitive answer. You may arrive suddenly at a critical decision facing the life or death of your business, as I have, many times. I wished I had this muscle well trained many years ago. In startups, it helps to have both of your wits with you at all times.


  • Ben Huh

    Ben leads the New Cities project at YC Research. He's the founder and former CEO Cheezburger, which popularized memes to the masses. He also co-founded Circa, a critically acclaimed mobile news appli