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How do you treat life as an experiment?

The true method of knowledge is experiment. -- William Blake [1]
Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little course, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

In my last post I mentioned our book project Think, Try, Learn: A Scientific Method for Discovering Happiness, and how it is central to my thinking and personal brand. The more I talk with people about this perspective (looking at everything in life as a scientific experiment), the more excited I am about it; there's something really good here. As I wrote in The Real Reasons For The Modern Productivity Movement, I think the timing is right. We need a personal modern method for making our way in the world - for sensemaking [2] - that benefits from 400 years of developing techniques that, as Richard Feynman put it [3], protects us from fooling ourselves. Current global challenges make this even more imperative.

Clearly people have been using this lens for centuries - Thoreau's Walden comes to mind (free ebook here) - and looking back I see this has permeated my thinking [4]. In this post I want to start a discussion by asking how you've treated life as an experiment. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.


What is an experiment?

What do we mean by "experiment?" For the scientists reading, let's defer the discussion of whether this approach is technically an experiment (it's not). Instead I'm speaking to the spirit of science, with a working definition more like this:

Experiment: To try something new, especially in order to gain experience

One way to think of it is as a perspective and method for entering any situation best prepared to make the most of it, i.e., to facilitate its transforming us ideally as possible. (Got a better definition? Share!)

Let's break it down.


What is the mindset of the personal scientist exploring life? Here are a few central elements:

  • Uncertainty: Life is unpredictable; that's part of why it's exciting. But the flip side is it's scary when we don't know where it's headed. The scientist looks at life as a challenge rich with opportunity. It moves us from "Do Not!" to "Why Not?"
  • Objectivity: Because we are emotional creatures, it's easy to become wrapped up with events. This clouds our judgement (think fight or flight: "the body's response to perceived threat or danger" [5]) and can send us down paths that waste energy. That's why scientists cultivate what we call a "healthy sense of detachment."
  • Curiosity: We are learning machines. We're built to explore the world and learn from it, and it's what made us the most fearsome species. Tapping into our innate curiosity does two things. First, it disconnects the fear that keeps us from being engaged and enjoying life. Second, it invokes the power of questions, which is central to so much personal development. Questions lead to insight ("Why am I doing this?"), are the secret to consulting and sales ("Tell me what's going on"), and turn us into good conversationalists ("What keeps you busy these days?"). Also, for guys it activates what I call the "Shut the Heck Up" gene. Because sometimes people just want to be heard. Inquiry is a scientist's driving force; questions are her tool.
  • Equanimity: Because our method gives us a sense of control, we're more at peace with the results. Knowing we don't know the outcome, but that we're guaranteed to learn something regardless, sooths our need for certitude. Bonus: Less stress and better sense of humor!
  • Failure: Fire up your feed reader and you won't go three minutes without coming across a post on failure (over 3x106 blog hits on no such thing as failure). Unfortunately it's not clear how we operationalize the idea. Scientists instead understand that success isn't necessarily accomplishing a static goal. There are certainly outcomes we're hoping for (a successful wedding, an influential research paper, a profitable software launch), but focusing on learning means we'll come out ahead. Granted, the results might be disappointing at the time (that's why every scientist needs humor training ;-) but dammit you will know something you didn't know going in. Like "Never combine chilies and beer" or "Twitter has sucked evrey last drop of productivity from my bones."
  • Flexibility: If the outcome is uncertain, then we darn well better be ready to adapt. It underlies why software methodologies like Extreme Programming are so effective. The thought is to adjust course frequently based on feedback, rather than set a path up front and stick to it no matter what. Scientists work to stay agile.
  • Courage: Saying "I don't know" is hard. Some mistakenly perceive it as weakness, and it requires courage to say. But when you're regularly trying new things (and if you're not, you're not living [6]) you're meeting life's inherent risk in a positive way.
  • Zest: Lastly, the scientist hungers for insight and discovery, and so invites experiences into her life. This attitude opens room for serendipity, and leads to surprise and delight. (Sidebar: I took the word "zest" from Carr's fine book How to Attract Good Luck. You'll find a nice little summary here.)

How about you? What perspectives do you employ to treat live as an experiment?


The second aspect of our approach is method. How do you actually go about treating life experimentally? The stuffy summary (from the wikipedia entry): Iterations, recursions, interleavings, and orderings of the following:

  • Characterizations (observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry)
  • Hypotheses (theoretical, hypothetical explanations of observations and measurements of the subject)
  • Predictions (reasoning including logical deduction from the hypothesis or theory)
  • Experiments (tests of all of the above)
  • Analysis & interpretation

Note that the order isn't fixed. I like how Dan Russell (more below) puts it:

The common conception of research is that a scientist first thinks up a hypothesis, then collects data to test it, then writes up a neat analysis confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis. That's beautiful, but it's also almost completely wrong.

When I'm making sense of some complicated area, it's more of a full-contact, sweaty, wrestling-around-with-data kind of thing. Trust me: it's not nearly as antiseptic and passionless as the common conception would have it. This is red-blooded science as played on the field. It's more of a rugby scrum than a still-life chess game.

I'd like a simpler way to say this? How about this: "(In any order) Try things, pay attention, learn from them, and repeat." Do you have a good description?

Examples of experiments

How about some examples? First, if you practice a self-management method like David Allen's Getting Things Done, I'll posit that every project (defined as a multi-step outcome) is an experiment. Why? Because even with the best preparation (see Simple Project Planning For Individuals: A Round-up) things will never go exactly to plan. There's too much variety and too many unanticipated factors to anticipate completely.

In my case, a good example is my switch from ex-NASA engineer and research programmer to productivity consultant (see Commitment Time! (Taking The Big Leap). There's a ton of unknowns and new situations involved, and I'm usually trying something novel daily. It's why I track decisions (see A Key To Continuous Learning: Keep A Decision Log) and what I've learned [7] (see Some Thoughts From Tracking "lessons Learned" For A Year). Actually, this is more like a broad research initiative than a single experiment. It's a direction that involves dozens of on-going projects and experiments like blogging and writing a book. Fun stuff.

How about you? What experiments do you have going on right now?

Questions and Wrap-up

That's my first pass at introducing the ideas around treating life as an experiment. I would love to hear your thoughts, and to get a discussion going in whatever ways come up. Post a comment, send me an email, give me a call, or help me start a discussion group.




Reader Comments (11)


As I'm sure we've all read: only 3% of the population write down their goals. I find this interesting as all goal achievement appears to be an experiment in attainment. Since getting from where we are to where we want to be requires exploring alternatives, experimentation is necessary. If there is no experimentation, there is generally no growth.

To expand and grow, is basically to experiment. Since most of my experimentation is intuitive, I can't base any of this on anything that remotely resembles science. Sometimes the outcome is nothing close to preconceived expectation. However, positive or negative, the experimentation, generally speaking, produces better understanding.

Experimentation seems to clarify and help us better define our framework. Be it a framework for complex business analysis, or organizing the garage to facilitate it's productive use. My general framework for goal setting and attainment is a work in progress that is still being influenced by experimentation. It still produces positive and negative outcomes, both of which are valuable to the ongoing refinement of my framework.

Back to my original question regarding goal setting and why only 3% of the population write out their goals and plan for attainment. Many postulate it to be the fear of failure. I'm not convinced this is true. Everybody fails at something. Personally, I probably register more failures than successes. I think it's the hard work of experimentation and the deeper understanding of why we can, or can't, accomplish preconceived notions of the outcome. Life experimentation is predicated on the desire to improve. Everybody wants to improve, few are willing to commit to the experimentation required to realize attainment. So, my non-scientific conclusion is that desire to experiment, not fear, is why goal attainment is so hard.

With that, I'll continue to experiment, for better or worse, and monitor outcome to expectation. To purge wheat from chafe, and hopefully, one day, get that darn garage organized for productive use.

Continue the fine work. As always, wishing you greater successes.


December 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers


Thanks for the clarification on the 3% myth. I'd never spent any time researching the statistic. It's interesting how sometimes we take things at face value without requiring proof.

However, more interesting was your link chain. I found this fun and enlightening. Thanks again for the information.


December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Yep, original research is uncommon, esp. in the media. I like sites like http://www.factcheck.org/ that keep up some pressure on organizations.

December 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Technically they are called ‘lap desks” I guess, which is important if you want to order them They come in different sizes. Mine is 1 ½” deep My wife’s I think is 2” (this is the measure of how thick i.e. how deep they ) . It should be at least 1 1/2 “ as the smaller sizes are not as useful.

If they had a better name I’m sure they’d be more popular. Sporty’s Pilot shop is a typical place to get one. You can take a look:


You can hold tons of stuff in these. Mainly stuff that has to lie flat and cannot afford to get folded, bent spindled or effected by the weather that sort of thing. E.g. a check book, this is the perfect place for a check book. Even better: envelopes, so you can pay your bills. The lap desk is metal and enclosed so it will hold these without the humidity or rain getting to the gummed labels. (well I guess we don’t have gummed labels on envelopes anymore but still useful). And of course the desk holds pens, and pencils that sort of thing as well as the obligatory note pad.

It sort of serves as the nerve center in my car. I can ran out the door grab some bills and I know that everything else I need to pay bills is in the car: i.e. the envelopes, the stamps, the checkbook, pen everything.

Other stuff e.g invoices, or speeding tickets can be all nicely kept there as you collect them throughout your daily travels….Got 5 or 6 parking tickets just stick them in there and forget about it. It’s got enough space that you can even hold reference materials, such as all those receipts for tires, brakes, and oil. Putting them in the glove box always causes problems but they will sit real nice in there.

December 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

I love the idea. Any tool we can steal from another domain is fun. BTW the police called about the tickets. Maybe it's not a good idea to "stick them in there and forget about it." :-)

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

is the checklist binder.

December 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGH

Yes, what is the function of the binder? Is it just a 3 ring binder w/ paper or does it have other functions? Does it store pens? or have folders to hold other papers? What?

My friend R showed me her organizational materials: she has one of those address/planner books converted basically into an index for reference materials. Stuff on clients, references to auto receipts, regulations she has to know for work. It is all written in there in alphabetical. Then she has a seperate note book for like ubiquitous capture and stuff.

December 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

Check out [ Your Portable A-Z Section - Not Just For Contacts | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/06/your-portable-z-section-not-just-for.html ]

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

In a flight checklist binder, the checklists are laminated or enclosed in vinyl sleeves. Grease pencil (which erases with a dry cloth) is used to mark or annotate the list.

December 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGH
[old comment that didn't import]

Thanks very much for your essay - I like how you've connected personal accomplishment with an experimental attitude. Nice.

I hadn't heard the 3% idea before - neat. [after a bit of research] Apparently it's a myth [1].

> Since getting from where we are to where we want to be requires exploring alternatives, experimentation is necessary. If there is no experimentation, there is generally no growth.

This is pure gold, Davey. Life requires exploration, and experimentation is the best tool we've developed to guide us. It's a process of understanding and therefore clarification.

> My general framework ... is a work in progress

Well put! It goes straight into my phrase bank.

> fear of failure vs. desire to improve

I think fear of failure plays a part for certain circumstances, at least for me. I avoid some projects because, frankly, I might suck at them. That's why I need this method - to put the thing in perspecive. The *suckiness* property is judgement (probably unconsiosly-motivated) based on /information/. We foget that it should start with the latter, and that it's our models layered on top that make meaning.

The desire to improve is the meat of it, exactly.

> few are willing to commit to the experimentation required to realize attainment

Hear hear! Not my readers, though ;-)

> desire to experiment, not fear, is why goal attainment is so hard

There's a good blog post. "Not reaching your goals? Grab your goggles and hit the lab!"

[1] 3% a myth?

o Constant And Never Ending Improvement In All Areas Of Our Lives http://constantimprovements.com/self-improvement/goal-setting-the-power-of-writing-down-your-goal mentions a "famous study from Yale in 1953" and a Harvard Business School study on student financial status 10 years after graduation (no references), the latter from Look Within or Do Without: 13 Qualities Winners All Share http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1564144909?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1564144909 . However, a commenter says

> I urge you, though, to look into the 'Yale Study'. Do you have any evidence that this study actually took place? It is generally accepted that this study (also sometimes refered to as the Harvard Study!) is actually a myth; it never actually happened and has been made up to give credibility to goal-setting.

o Harvard Business School Goal Story http://www.lifemastering.com/en/harvard_school.html refers to a Harvard Business School study in 1979, via McCormack's [ What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School: Notes From A Street-Smart Executive | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0553345834?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0553345834 ].

o In [ Fact or Fiction? The Truth About The Harvard Written Goal Study | http://sidsavara.com/personal-productivity/fact-or-fiction-the-truth-about-the-harvard-written-goal-study ] the author responds to reader requests for references for the number, and does a nice job search for the origin. He eventually found a Yale Law library entry that found no one remembers a 1953 study.

o The Fast Company article [ If Your Goal Is Success, Don't Consult These Gurus | http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/06/cdu.html ] also finds it a myth, learned via a Yale researcher.

o [ Ask Handsome Dan Business & Economics Questions | http://faq.library.yale.edu/recordDetail?id=7508&\1action=&\1library=yale_business&\1institution=Yale ] by a Yale librarian also says it's a myth.

However, you gotta' love Brian Tracy's comment that if it's not true, it /should/ be :-)
October 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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