146. Building Intuition, your highest leverage Capability

Rama Nimmagadda
5 min readJan 12, 2024
Photo taken by Prateek Kumar Rohatgi in 2019 at Lavasa, India

“Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.” — Steve Jobs

Chess is a tough board game. Mainly because of the sheer number of possible options at every play. Each such option can have any number of consequences and these consequences have to be assessed before deciding on the appropriate move. All such assessments have to be done on the fly. There is no computer at hand to work out options. This puts an enormous amount of cognitive load both in terms of the amount of temporary information to be stored and the processing of that information. This kind of mental load will be draining for masters and amateurs alike. After all, the chess grandmasters are humans too and are constrained by the regular “human” limitations. Even so, grandmasters are clearly way, way better than amateurs at playing the game. They are able to identify a much more appropriate move and that too, far more quickly than amateur players. Clearly, they seem to have an intuitive ability in playing chess that is lost on most of the rest.

It has been observed in various studies (Adriaan De Groot, William Chase, Herbert Simon etc) that Chess masters generally have great memory recall but have the same limitations on the size of short-term memory as amateur players. Even their photographic memory is limited to qualified contexts. They seem to be good at remembering only certain kinds of memory.

To illustrate, try remembering the following string:

“uksb tyhl ysi ee”.

I am guessing that it was not easy. But the following must be much easier to remember: “the sky is blue”. It is the same string of letters as above but ordered differently.

“Intuition in chess can be defined as the first move that comes to mind when you see a position.” — Viswanathan Anand

Extending this analogy, Chess masters do not remember letters or even words. They remember sentences. Sentences are not just random assembly of words. They are a meaningful array of words. For example: “blue the is sky” is not a valid sentence but “the sky is blue” is. It seems like, through years of conscious, deep practice, chess masters train their subconscious brain to recognize valid, meaningful snapshots. In doing this, they exploit the innate ability of the human subconscious to detect patterns. More to the point, masters learn to quickly ignore irrelevant patterns. For those who have not put in that kind of hard, conscious effort over a long time, i.e., amateur chess players, chess masters come across as people with special intuition for playing chess.

This is not to say that everyone can build the same level of master intuition through sheer hard training. There seems to be a natural limitation on the overall potential which is set at birth. But even if one is born with very high potential (for playing chess, say), it still requires the right kind and amount of practice to realize that potential.

This is applicable in other domains as well like management, leadership, investing, raising kids, teaching, coaching, driving, politics, tennis, football, cricket etc. What limits the realization of potential in any domain is the opportunity and the intent to put in the right kind of practice.

It is easy to understand what it takes to develop “intuition” in sports — start early and do a lot of deep practice. But how about in areas such as raising children or building a career or investing. How do you create opportunities for deep practice here. It is not like you can first practice on your first child. We have only one life and typically a couple of kids or careers (or fewer). In chess, tennis and other sports, you can play again and again and again and ingrain patterns but this is not possible in many other areas of life.

“The secret, or innermost, level of wisdom is pure intuition, clarity, lucidity, innate wakefulness, presence, and recognition of reality. This transcendental wisdom is within all of us — it just needs to be discovered and developed, unfolded and actualized.” — Surya Das

So, how do you build intuition in these much more important and consequential areas of life?

Let me share what works for me.

The biggest ROI in developing intuition has come from developing deep expertise by consciously learning from my own personal and vicarious experiences. Afterall, intuition is the flipside of expertise. Books have also long been a great source of such learning and now podcasts have become great avenues too.

I have also been a great beneficiary of the acquired ability of “First principles” thinking. As opposed to gathering hacks of achieving stuff, I try to understand why such methods help. What are the fundamental drivers underpinning them. What are the structures and systems behind the “success” formulae.

“80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.” — Charlie Munger

Creating a latticework (borrowing Mungers words) of powerful mental models helped me in developing a strong intuitive sense of how things generally work. Typically, acquiring “mental models” involves critical understanding of universal principles in disciplines such as biology, engineering, physics, psychology etc and ingraining them in mind. “Entropy”, “Compounding” etc are couple of such examples.

Chess is not a complex game; it is instead complicated. Its pieces like pawn, rook, knight etc are allowed limited degrees of freedom. However, real life is a complex affair. The variables involved are far higher with a much larger choice of actions. They are not just independent (like in chess) but also interdependent (unlike in chess). This underscores the need to constantly update intuition, through conscious learning from longitudinal and diverse experiences.

In the end, I think intuition is equal measures expertise and wisdom.

Bottomline

“I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.” ― Richard Branson

Tennis greats such as Nadal, Federer or Djokovic seem to have an intuitive sense of the angle and position at which their opponents are going to serve the ball. Are they born with such intuitive ability? Most likely not. They develop it through years of hard and smart work.

Without a good intuitive sense, you may end up working out a number of fruitless options in pursuit of your goals. This will waste resources and more critically time. Thankfully, intuition is a trainable skill and developing it could be one of the highest leverage capabilities that you may ever engage in.

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Thanks for taking time to read this. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals. I try to share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile and if you do not mind it, please do consider sharing it with others.

A bit on my background

I help people make better decisions.

I coach people on “Making Better Decisions”, “Financial Intuition” and “Building Great Careers”. I’m open to run sessions on these topics in institutions — this will help me create larger impact.

I’m also an Investment Advisor (RIA) registered with the Securities and the Exchange Board of India (SEBI). As an RIA, I analyze and prepare financial plans to help people achieve their financial goals.

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