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Michel de Montaigne and The Experiment-Driven Life

Michel de Montaigne

I'm always excited when someone new shares insights into living life as an experiment, so I was delighted when a reader told me about Tim Ferris's guest poster Ryan Holiday and his lovely essay The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne. In it he interprets how 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne's writing relates to living The Experiment-Driven Life. I thought I'd give a hearty welcome to Ryan in joining the conversation, and share my response from the Think, Try, Learn perspective.

I hadn't heard of de Montaigne before, which is not surprising given the meager literary coverage of my science background. (Should all scientists take a poetry course?)

Question: Do you know his work? Any other implications for living life as an experiment? Any other similar philosophers whose work relates to TTL?

Thanks Ryan!

(Note: You can find de Montaigne's complete 'Essais' online here.)

The self-tracking movement

At the meta level, Ryan has introduced Tim's readers to the growing self-tracking movement, and it's really exciting. People are collecting data and getting insights into themselves and the world across all domains - there are gadgets and mobile apps for everything from tracking weight, to sleep, to how much power you use, to reading, to sex. (Preferably not all at once, though - bad science.) In addition to Seth Roberts - the quintessential self-experimenter Ryan mentions on his blog (check out Will Butter Make You Smarter?) - Tim's readers may want to know about the Quantified Self blog at www.kk.org/quantifiedself/. It's hosted by senior Wired.com editor Kevin Kelly and by Gary Wolf, who wrote The Data-Driven Life in the NYTimes.

Ourselves As A Job

Exactly. What Ryan's getting at is the core idea of applying the experimental mindset to life, what I call the Experiment-Driven life. Not only can we deal with problems, challenges, and opportunities as experiments, but we can learn to be bolder and try new things. This opens up a world of experiences that for those of us don't have the Ferriss zest gene :-) It also puts mistakes and failure into healthier perspective (mistakes are natural and essential, and experimenting in life guarantees success).

Self-Experimentation and Observation

Observation is a key to treating life as an experiment, and to living happier. It does a few important things. First, it puts you into what I call a "healthy sense of detachment" - the mode of getting some distance and perspective on things by looking at them objectively. For example, this feels a whole lot better than the alternative thought (that of "Oh sh*t!"): "I just got some interesting data. What does this mean, and what do I want to do with it?" Second, it makes us more mindful. Living in the present is a key to being happy, and keen and vigilant observation - keeping your scientist eyes open - sucks you right into the moment. The key to this is keeping your curiosity alive, and the key to *that* is asking questions (one of the integral practices I talk about).

Playful relationship with existence

Adding playfulness to our lives is important, made all the harder because being too serious is an occupational hazard of growing up. From the life-as-experiment perspective, playful minds are more relaxed, and therefore more prone to see novel patterns or solutions. This helps us grow and discover more about ourselves. One way to do this is to look at the world as a "black box" where you play with poking it with a stick (i.e., sending in an input) and seeing what happens (looking at resulting outputs). You can do this with people (make yourself a detective and try to figure out what gets them excited), space (hiding, spinning, or simply taking a different route to work), or things (smelling, disassembling, or tossing, for example).

Intimate knowledge of ourselves

Yes, and not only that, it gives us the opportunity for insight and self-knowledge, which makes it easier to work in harmony with ourselves, others, and the world. Working from measurements, I call this the "enlightenment cycle": Observation leads to Awareness leads to Change. This is a much more effective route to change (the implementation of self-improvement) than a direct approach. Habit changes are a great example.

In French his word "essay" also means "trial."

This is a nice insight, Ryan. An important practice in setting up effective experiments is to treat them as *prototypes*, including making them small, focusing on the "frontier" (getting the maximum amount of information for the least amount of effort), and keeping the iterations short. (Tim is brilliant at the creativity necessary to dream up good ones, such as using ads to explore product viability.) Also, using the language of prototypes helps strengthen the muscles of the experimental mindset. Saying "Let's just give this a little try" is much less threatening (and overwhelming!) than committing to a giant effort.

Know what you're aiming for before bothering with the process

Interesting point. This brings up a contradiction I've been thinking about - how to reconcile a top-down and rigorous scientific method (state your theory, design an experiment with appropriate variables, etc.) with the more informal, personal approach of living life experimentally. My solution is a simplified version of the scientific method - the Think, Try, Learn cycle. This is more accessible to folks, and allows you to start anywhere and move around as you see fit. If you know where you're aiming, work straight through from THINK to TRY to LEARN. However, if you're not sure what you want to discover (but there are still many reasons to experiment), you might start out at TRY, for example. It's a way to gain the intimate knowledge of ourselves you mention, but not be stuck at knowing exactly where to start.

Keep a Commonplace Book

Absolutely! Ryan has discovered an important practice, one that all good scientists do, that of keeping an experimenter's journal. This is akin to a professional or personal journal (mine's a giant text file), but it's focused on tracking both the data *and* your observations of the process itself. The latter is crucial because it's where insights and self-discovery happen. Because when it comes down to it, the living is in the present; the past is gone and the future hasn't happened yet! FYI We're building an experimenter's journal called Edison, the Think, Try, Learn experimenter's journal. It's at edison.thinktrylearn.com.

Wisdom that can be accessed in times of crisis, depression or joy

Beautifully put, Ryan. From a practical perspective, those are great triggers for for reflection. I also do opportunistic discovery by randomly looking around entries when I'm searching for something specific - kinda' like stumbling on a great book on the library shelves when looking for something unrelated.

Skeptic's notion of questioning what he "knew"

Certainty is an important component of our being essentially irrational creatures. Burton's book "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" is a nice introduction. The solution, as Ryan is getting at, is to model *yourself* by recording expectations, observing how they pan out, and doing self-correction as a result. This is not common in the "echo chamber" culture of politics, news, and blogging, and the greater climate of not being willing to admit you're wrong, or seeing changing your mind as a weakness. Much better is to adopt science's built-in skepticism and assumption that we don't (or can't) know it all.

Excuses about being too busy to do any of this

Definitely - changing how you think is hard. One way to get started is to try one or two "micro-experiments" - things like starting a one-week Media Diet, or the put-one-back technique for portion control when eating. Small things like these can help start the shift to the experimental perspective.


Side note: I'm a collector of great quotes (jeez - over 600 of them in the big-arse), and Michel de Montaigne said some nice ones, which follow.

  • Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.
  • Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.
  • To philosophize is to doubt.
  • It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.
  • There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
  • I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.
  • There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
  • I quote others only in order the better to express myself.
  • Wise men have more to learn of fools than fools of wise men.

Reader Comments (6)

Hello Matt; just to catch up on things here. I had some more random comments...

You mentioned your reasons for leaving productivity field and I couldnt help but it compare them to the upper end of Maslow's theory of hierarchy; the highest stage known as self actualization. There are a great number of concepts involved, the wiki article does not cover all of them in fact, but a few that stand out include:

• Interested in solving problems
• Creative in work, family, social, and recreational pursuits
Focuses on problems and people outside of himself /herself. Has a mission in life requiring much energy as it is his sole reason for existence. Is serene, lacks worry and devoted to duty.

Moment to moment living for him is thrilling transcending and spiritual as he lives in the present moment to the fullest


I was also going to ask you about blogging in general and whether you feel that the software and the structure of a blog itself is rather too confining for your ultimate purpose and goals?

As far as experimentation goes; it occurred to me the other day that man really cannot learn more until/unless someone decides to go against conventional wisdom and propose a new theory. There's just no other way to do it other than to take a leap of faith and put something out there that might seem totally odd or completely absurd.
October 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjp in maryland
Thanks for your thoughts, jp. Re: Maslow, yes! The productivity work was in this category - helping people use their gifts as effectively as possible. TTL is the next step - creating a new way of looking at the world, via a method to help people live happier lives. In fact, you've made me think that my work is aimed at helping people up the hierarchy. Cool.

> the software and the structure of a blog itself is too confining

I'm getting more clarity on what social tools are best at. The blog is fine for what I'm doing here - hashing out ideas, getting feedback from smarties, sharing news and interpretation, etc. Edison is for conversations around experiments. The Wiki at http://thinktrylearn.com is supposed to be about the authoritative layer - the possible experiments to try, and which have worked well and why. Haven't put effort into that yet.

What are your needs around a blog? Thinking about starting one?

> man really cannot learn more until/unless someone decides to go against conventional wisdom and propose a new theory

This makes sense to me. I was just introduced to Kuhn's "Structure of scientific revolutions" and paradigm shifts. Doesn't he argue something similar?
October 27, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Have no idea, about Kuhn the thought just occurred to me yesterday, and in fact it was like Eureka moment that I didnt quite capture fast enuf....Did you ever have one of those? It hit me like a ton of bricks, I mean the implications of that, that you cant really learn (learn is the wrong word here we dont ever finish learning about say the universe do we? rather we explore) until we break from what we think we already know.

At that moment, it seemed like a profound thought ..what with all the implications. But by the time I got to pencil and paper there was some great concept that I had already forgotten...

> What are your needs around a blog? Thinking about starting one?

Sort of. With the passing of my dad, I have new freedom and also more responsibility to produce and support my family. Possibly through the internet, and some other projects that I am working on.

The blog thing seems sort of limiting I was hoping for a self help sort of web site that has less structure to it. It seems to me the blog structure sort of places everything into a linear order; there is a linear archive of past posts, there are linear comments, everything in series, etc.

I dont really think like that in fact it occurred to me to construct the website just as I construct my office. I've put a lot of thought (or so it seems) into how I organize my office, my ubiquitous journal/planner, etc. So the blog would reflect the structure of that. Instead of a linear series of entries, there might be like a bulletin board, something I stick post its and little messages on in real life. Sort of translate this into the website. Sure there would be external links, and there would be a basic structure to it that reflects the way I organize my office. But there's an in box for stuff that has to be processed and outbox for stuff that needs to go somewhere, maybe to trash or to a project file, and there's stuff that's referential that needs to go back into a drawer. Somehow the ideas and resources on the website would be organized like that.

I know it sounds insane...
October 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjp in maryland
Good luck, JP. I'd like to encourage you - you have a lot to say. Re: structure of blog vs. ... Have you considered a Wiki? http://thinktrylearn.com/ is based on one, though I've not implemented my plans for it yet. Plenty of free ones, and they might support the structure you've outlined. GTD for Web Sites?
October 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Um yeah, sort of. I didnt even realize that wiki's follow the structure of wikipedia. Do they all have a default structure like the TTL site? or can you vary it? I guess I have to google it and see what is available...Hmm..

I do have a sort of thought experiment that I might discuss over there..Thanks for suggestions.
October 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjp in maryland
You can vary the appearance some. This is a http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/MediaWiki installation, as is http://en.wikipedia.org/ and http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Main_page, so you can see some variation. There are free wikis online, such as Google's https://sites.google.com/
October 30, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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