The true method of knowledge is experiment. -- William Blake 
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  - that benefits from 400 years of developing techniques that, as Richard Feynman put it , 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 . 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" ) 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 ) 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.)
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.
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  (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.
-  Paraphrased. The full passage:
As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of.This from All Religions Are One, "The Argument" (1788). See also: All Religions Are One: William Blake (original passage), Blake on Knowledge Through Experience (image), Democracy's Mysticism: Thoughts on "All Religions are One," by Blake (analysis), and William Blake Quotes.
-  I've recently become enamored of this term, with Dan Russell's take on it being a good resource to get you thinking: Creating Passionate Users: Sensemaking 1. See also his CHI 2008 Workshop description. Are there any resources you've found helpful?
-  See his "Cargo Cult Science" address (pdf and html versions), included in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).
-  A search for experiment yields about 40 posts with the word, and some of my most popular posts are those around self-experimentation, including:
- Productivity: Actually Getting Things Done With Getting Things Done! Surprises And Learnings From My Implementation.
- Sales: Induced Personality Disorder, Or: I Tried It, But I'm Not Proud Of It
- Health: What GTD And Weight Watchers Have In Common, Reflections On Alexander Technique And Personal Productivity (lots of references, actually)
- Networking: On The Goal Of Meeting Three New People A Week - A Ten Week Retrospective, Networking Surprises - Some Recent Unexpected (but Successful) Outcomes, and A Review Of "How To Make People Like You In 90 Seconds Or Less".
- Online tools: A Late Adopter's Productivity Experiment With Twitter, Plus Some 140 Word Humor
-  From What is Fight-Or-Flight Response?. See also Fight or Flight Response - Psychologist World's Stress: The Fight or Flight Response. Note that this theory's relevance may have changed (see Does "Fight or Flight" Need Updating?).
-  I love Wheeler's thought, "If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day."
-  One lesson that I'm still hit on the head with is: EMPTY YOUR INBOX DAILY. Yes, I know this. Yes, I teach this. And yes, I still get lazy. But there's a cost. A lost investment opportunity, an embarrassing request for something already received, a missed a client follow-up, etc. But don't go too hard on yourself. This stuff requires discipline.