Why Treating Life Like An Experiment Helps You Make Faster Decisions

Startups become successful when they embrace being engines of experimentation. Can people?

Why Treating Life Like An Experiment Helps You Make Faster Decisions

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the most supreme of supreme court justices, wrote that the Constitution of the United States is “an experiment, as all of life is an experiment.”


So if he can have such a respectful, experimental attitude to the most significant document to the law of the country he served, why can’t we have a similar sense of experimentation in our own lives?

We’ve talked about this at a macro scale: that it can be useful to think of your career as a course of “grand experiments,” in which you can test your strengths and tastes and capabilities in the multi-trajectory odyssey that is a contemporary career path. But as Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta notes, you can iterate on the micro level, too.

Decisions as experiments

Analysis frequently provides paralysis. Sartre said that man is condemned by his freedom; if you’ve ever stood slack-jawed in a cereal aisle overwhelmed by granola granularity, you’ve tasted that existential quandary. As Babauta notes, we get paralyzed because we’re fretting about making the perfect choice–and worried about making the wrong choice.

It’s a little micro moment of perfectionism. And as psychologist Brené Brown has told us, if perfectionism is driving, then shame is riding shotgun. Why? Because when we make choices, we make ourselves vulnerable to being “wrong,” and since we always need to be right to maintain a sense of self worth, it would be really, really shameful to select the wrong brand of cereal.

That military-industrial-perfectionist-shame complex is perpetuated, Babauta purports, because we feel our decisions are final, that we’ll be stuck with the same granola forever. Instead, he urges us to recognize the impermanence in every choice–since we’re conducting serial cereal experiments, we’re only seeing what might happen:

With an experiment, you run a test and see what the results are. If you don’t get good results, you can try another option, and run another test. Then you can see what the outcomes of the choices are (the info you didn’t have when first thinking about the decision), and you can make a better-informed decision now.

In this way, working becomes research.

Like Babauta says, if we don’t know whether we want to start a cupcake business, we can bake on the side and see if our friends dig our confectionery hustle. If we might wanna learn to dance, we can take a class before committing to becoming an expert in a year. If getting up insanely early might provide us some much-needed peace, we can try it for a week.


But there is one caveat: If we want the experimental actions to form an automatic habit, we’re going to need to practice for a while–it takes 66 days before an action becomes something you do without needing to force yourself to do it.

Hat Tip: Zen Habits

[Image: Flickr user See-ming Lee]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.