In his book Fully Alive: Using the Lessons of the Amazon to Live Your Mission in Business and Life, entrepreneur and Amazonian explorer Tyler Gage shares how his approach of “Looking at Both Horizons” helped him and fellow co-founder Dan MacCombie build Runa in to one of the fastest growing beverage companies in the US that supports over 3,000 indigenous families in Ecuador. In this edited excerpt, the author outlines how to use your full range of logical and intuitive faculties to navigate challenging situations in business and life.
Sometimes, and relatively often in start-up scenarios, quick decision making is unavoidable. And the more intuitive shoot- from-the-hip strategy has at times worked quite well for us. We’ve had crazy amounts of seemingly magical support appear out of thin air.
But the times when making a quick decision was actually unavoidable were probably less than 50 percent of the times we thought it was unavoidable. Maybe even less than 15 percent of the time. Knowing when to be analytical and when to be intuitive is particularly challenging because the game is always changing.
In my view, modern society emphasizes analysis and rationality while devaluing our intuitive abilities, and that’s a tragedy; it makes it difficult for people and companies to break out of the limitations they’ve inadvertently placed around themselves.
At other extreme, some people adopt an overly “spiritual” approach that proposes the answer to every issue is to “just sur- render” or “just trust it, man, it’s all good.” That hands over the power of your agency and creative potential to some external other force. Having spiritual beliefs doesn’t mean forfeiting the chance to act skillfully in a given situation.
In the Kichwa understanding of being runa, or “fully alive,” one of the core aspects is that you access the full range of your human faculties in service of your goals, your prayers, and your intentions. In other words, you make use of every tool at your disposal, not just the handful at the front of your drawer. As they say, when you have a hammer, all your problems look like a nail.
When Amazonian healers treat patients with severe illnesses, they use the full range of tools at their disposal, and laugh at the idea of “isolating only one variable,” as if arming a basketball team with only point guards were a good strategy. As a baseline, they prepare complex, highly crafted combinations of different plants with complex chemistry both to fight the disease and to support the body’s overall immunity. From there, they prescribe specified dietary regimes to create the right conditions in the body for recovery. Beyond that, they use plant baths, plant poultices, vapors, and oils to support the physical body from the out- side in. And they use a variety of spiritual tools, from singing, to meditation, to dream work, to look at and heal any deeper psycho-emotional or psycho-spiritual threads of the disease.
Parallel to my experience in business, the starting point has to be thorough research, analysis, calculation, and debate (within a team context). While, yes, there is inevitably some “magical” leap that must be made in a tough decision-making process, you have to first narrow the gap as much as possible. Nothing can substitute for it. Google CEO Larry Page says “I’ve learned that your intuition about things you don’t know that much about isn’t very good.”
Especially in the world of fast-moving entrepreneurship, it’s critical to resist the seductive tendency to think you have to act now and to overvalue “gut decisions.” Get multiple bids on a project, run downside scenarios of a potential idea, and if for some reason you don’t, make sure you have a very good reason for skipping ahead.
One specific technique I’ve seen to be immensely powerful in helping add additional rigor to hiring and partnership decisions in particular is to do “backdoor reference checks.” If you are hiring someone or looking to work with a contractor, never just call the people they list as references—who, of course, are handpicked because they will say nice things. Take the time to find other people the candidate has worked with and call them; in other words, go through the back door. Sometimes this can mean just cold-calling a company they used to work for and asking to speak with someone who used to work with them. This will give you a much more honest read on their abilities and what it will be like to work with them. It takes more time and effort, but it can save you from untold problems down the line.
After all the analysis has been done, a decision still must be made. In difficult relationship situations or when charting new territory on the business front, it’s rare to have enough information where the decision is cut-and-dried. Like the Amazon itself, difficult situations are usually “serpentine and moist,” requiring the permeable, mutable power of your intuitive faculties to feel into it. (Yes, I did just recommend “feeling” as an effective tool for making “business” decisions. I know it sounds “out there,” but it works.)
In order to feel comfortable trusting my intuitive read on a situation, “clearing my filters” is an important preparatory step. While sometimes this involves a vision quest or a plant dieta, I’ve found a range of more accessible practices I can use on a daily basis when needed.
For example, I will spend thirty minutes before going to bed journaling about a particular challenge I’m having, and then I will consciously focus on that challenge before falling asleep. The following morning I write down my dreams as soon as I wake up, and then journal for another fifteen to twenty minutes about the dream and whatever else comes to mind.
At first I almost always think, Well, that dream was completely meaningless and random. Then, after fifteen minutes of sitting with it and just writing in a stream of consciousness, I get to a “holy sh#@” moment. It doesn’t take any specialized dream interpretation techniques or symbolism whatever; just take the time to feel what comes up and reflect upon it.
I’ve also found value in a range of archaic methodologies for tapping into deeper, subtler layers of a situation when looking for guidance. From coca leaf readings (similar to tea leaf readings in Asia) to the I Ching (the ancient Chinese book of divination) to tarot cards, I’ve come to appreciate the way these tools help me see the effects of how my approach, mind-set, and underlying motivations are impacting the situation at hand.
The inner workings of why and how these techniques might work is beyond me. Personally, I’m open to both the more accessible perspective that they are effective because they speak in the language of the subconscious mind through metaphor (similar to a basic understanding of dream interpretation) and also the more esoteric one: that they possess the ability to enlist the help and guidance of unseen allies and/or spirits.
Rather than going to some third party who has some special power to interpret the coca leaves or an I Ching throw, the key for me is to push myself to use these tools myself and challenge my own ability to find useful reflections in what they are saying. I never use them to look for definite answers or try to “see the future” but purely to get a deeper sense of how to act with the most alignment in any given situation.
Tyler has spent the last 12 years studying with indigenous elders in the Amazon rainforest, venturing far from his suburban roots at the age of 20. After graduating from Brown University, Tyler turned down a Fulbright grant to start RUNA, a social enterprise that makes energizing beverages with guayusa, a rare Amazonian leaf, and improves livelihoods for 3,000 indigenous farming families in Ecuador. With over 70 employees and 15,000 stores selling RUNA beverages in the US and Canada, RUNA has grown in to one of the 500 Fastest Growing Companies in the US according to Inc Magazine.
Tyler was named a Forbes “30 Under 30 Entrepreneur” and winner of both the Big Apple Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the Specialty Food Association’s Citizen Leader of the Year Award. ABC Nightline, National Geographic and Richard Branson’s book Screw Business As Usual have all featured Tyler for his unique and powerful approach to building businesses and creating social good.