Gut Check: Data is Valuable, But There’s Something Else

By Jeffrey Whitford
Dec 14, 2018 9:30 AM ET

I recently had two pertinent reminders about my gut—and no I’m not talking about my microbiome, though this is an increasingly hot topic for us at the Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germanyi.

I often have a continual, inner dialogue with myself. This may be a side effect of being an only child and figuring out how to entertain myself, or a sign of something else. A lot of that dialogue comes from an attempt to be better in practice at reflection and learning lessons as they’re happening—allowing me to implement feedback in real-time.

While using movies as a source of inspiration for decision making may be questionable, I find one line from a movie to be salient about decision making: ”I take in information, process and make a decision.” This is certainly simplified, but still a good summary of what I feel like that process is like for me. I haven’t been shy about my distaste for data, but I dig in when I need to. The reason why I continually push back against a strictly data only approach is because, in my view, it’s not an absolute. Here’s how I arrived at this realization.

I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with my high school guidance counselor, Ms. Dana Moore. I told her that something she said back in 1999 stuck with me and ultimately gave my life direction. Even better was the fact that it was her delivery that really cemented the moment; but before we get there, let’s rewind a bit.

I learned a hard lesson at the age of 17, and it was the best lesson I could have learned at that time. I was thrilled because I got to take a field trip (read in between those lines and you’ll find a day that didn’t require traditional “learning”). It was a career exploration day for my Honors Advanced Biology class. We were going to University of Missouri — Kansas City to visit the medical school and see what their six-year med program would be like. Yes, at that time I was thinking I was going to become a pediatrician. Cue the 2’x2’ cubical that I would spend six years of my life in studying straight from the tour guide’s mouth. That 2’x2’ prison—I mean cubical—seemed far too regimented and restrictive for me, and my gut told me that was a hard no. Step one, check.

But real talk, I still needed to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up. I was one of a handful of students from my high school selected to go to Boys State, the American Legion program in which attendees set up a mock government during a week in the summer. I was already in a sour mood because it was in my home town, and I’d be sequestered in a hot dorm room two miles from my own comfortable bed. Eschewing the government part, I landed in the world of heading up the advertising for the candidates. I enjoyed it and didn’t really think much more of it.

I went back for my senior year and was having a conversation with my guidance counselor (Ms. Moore), and told her about my experience and my potential epiphany. I had a few options selected and she stopped me dead in my tracks. The subtext she gave me was basically—you idiot, do you not realize that one of the best journalism schools in the world is 90 minutes away? Of course, she didn’t use those words. She was pointed, while still guiding. Message received, Ms. Moore. So, I filled out the application, didn’t visit the school and was like: this is what I’m doing. It was, without question, one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made (aided of course by Ms. Moore). Thank you, Missouri Method.

Take two on the gut check express. I’ve been so fortunate to have a diverse group of people enter into my life—gracious, amazing, wonderful people who have shared (some knowingly and others unknowingly) their wisdom with me. If there’s an emotional quotient (EQ) skill that’s indispensable to have in your toolbox, it’s a people radar, for both sides of the equation.

Let’s go back to 2007. I was volunteering for a non-profit helping with their branding and advertising. I had been looking for more ways to connect with my community and this one fell right into my lap. So, connect I did. I started working with a few people and, soon after, we presented our work to a board member. I had a surreal experience. This board member so exactly dissected and destroyed my work in the most constructive way possible. Though, what made it more powerful was that she unearthed all the things that I knew were off, but couldn’t put my finger on and needed help bringing to the surface. It was at that moment that I told myself that I needed to get to know this woman ASAP and hope that she would be willing to get to know me in return.

Eleven years later, Carol Williams is still doing life with me through good and bad. She thoughtfully shares insights on how I can accelerate my development and forces me to dig deeper—reminding me to be ready for the tough questions. In fact, at the end of October, she dropped a great one on me and—aptly timed to this topic—she asked me, “what are the red flags that you are trying to ignore?” In my head, I immediately was like—me ignore signs? Never. But the reality was that she was right. I have a habit of trying to overcome the Herculean because I’m trying so hard to make things work. The good news on this one was that I could soundly say no red flags, but that’s just it—we need people who know us and who can call us out because those safety nets help us avoid blind spots, strengthen our decision making framework and flex those gut check muscles.

I told a business associate about a year-and-a-half ago that I really didn’t know the reason why our paths crossed, but it felt like there was a reason. It turns out, it took about six months to play out, but I was right. Learning to hone this sense helps us realize these moments, but it takes a lot of work to be consistently present to identify those moments. I’m a firm believer that there are lessons playing out around us all the time. The need to pay attention and learn from them goes back to my framework of taking in information, processing and making decisions. Some things can’t—or won’t—have data attached and, depending on your line of thinking, that can be a means for a minefield or a ripe opportunity to flex some different muscles.

There was a great Wall Street Journal update recently about Netflix and their algorithms and decision making. It highlighted that a promo for Grace and Frankie—which cracks me up on the regular—performed better when Lily Tomlin was alone instead of having both stars, including Jane Fonda. And that’s the rub—data is valuable, but sometimes these pesky things called humans get in the way and our guts tell us something different than the data. So, how’s your gut doing?

Jeffrey Whitford is head of corporate responsibility and branding for MilliporeSigma.

i The Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany operates as MilliporeSigma in the U.S. and Canada.