2012: My year of experiments

The Chemistry Of Inversion

In Work­ing Iden­tity—one of my all-time favorite books about career transitions—author Her­minia Ibarra urges us to approach our lives as a series of experiments.

Instead of research­ing, plan­ning, and exe­cut­ing our next moves, we need to live into them, says the Yale-educated pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior, who con­ducted an exten­sive study of suc­cess­ful mid-career changers.

As she suc­cinctly sums it up, “We learn who we are—in prac­tice, not in theory—by test­ing real­ity, not by look­ing inside. We dis­cover the true pos­si­bil­i­ties by doing—try­ing out new activ­i­ties, reach­ing out to new groups, find­ing new role mod­els, and rework­ing our story as we tell it to those around us.”

This is advice I’ve taken to heart in my own jour­ney through Plan B Nation, and I often return to Ibarra’s book when I’m feel­ing lost or confused.

Among Ibarra’s sug­ges­tions is to try new things and see what hap­pens:  “Only by test­ing do we learn what is really appeal­ing and feasible—and in the process, cre­ate our own oppor­tu­ni­ties,” she writes.

More specif­i­cally, she pro­poses “craft­ing experiments”—getting started on one or two new activ­i­ties while mak­ing sure you have a sound way to eval­u­ate results.

This year, I’ll be adopt­ing Ibarra’s approach with a slight twist. Rather than focus­ing just on my career, I’ll be exper­i­ment­ing more broadly. I’m inter­ested in my life as a whole, not just in pay­ing work (crit­i­cal though that is).

Here’s what I’ll be doing: Each month, I’ll embark on a new experiment—a con­crete set of activ­i­ties tied to a par­tic­u­lar time frame. At the end of the month, I’ll reflect on how my life has shifted as a result of tak­ing these actions.

One of the things that most intrigues me about this approach is the idea that exper­i­ments often take us in unex­pected direc­tions.  We may not get what we thought we would, but we may get some­thing bet­ter. Or if not bet­ter, dif­fer­ent. Or at least interesting.

All of my exper­i­ments will reflect three criteria:

1.  The activ­i­ties are process goals, not out­come goals: In other words—things that I can accom­plish on my own, with­out the world’s coop­er­a­tion. (Exam­ple: Writ­ing a book is a process goal. Sell­ing a book to a major pub­lisher for eight mil­lion dol­lars is an out­come goal. Make sense?)

2.  The activ­i­ties are not directly related to my pri­mary goals: This one is a bit murkier, but basi­cally I’m curi­ous about how tak­ing actions appar­ently unre­lated to life’s big chal­lenges may para­dox­i­cally help us sur­mount them. Is this true? We. Shall. See.

3.  The activ­i­ties are sat­is­fy­ing (and even fun) in them­selves: Life coach Tara Sophia Mohr, who writes the Wise Liv­ing Blog, urges us to “cre­ate goals that feel like huge gor­geous presents to our­selves,” hav­ing found that they are “not only more fun but also more effec­tive.” This sounds almost too good to be true, but Ms. Mohr, who is equipped with a Stan­ford M.B.A., makes a pretty strong case here, and I’m going to give it a try.

And now, here it is: 2012 Life Exper­i­ment #1: Over the next month, my plan is to con­nect (or re-connect) with 30 people—and then observe what follows.

I’m a pretty social per­son, so it’s not alto­gether unlikely that I’d be doing this any­way with­out giv­ing it much thought. But that’s exactly the point. Over the next month, I plan to be mind­ful of such connections—savoring the plea­sure they bring, curi­ous about where they’re lead­ing. Because, when all is said and done, the spirit in which we go about things tends to be at least as impor­tant as the things them­selves (as I wrote last night in my final post of 2011).

As always, you’re wel­come to join me—or to share your own life exper­i­ments (or pretty much any­thing else). In the mean­time, have a great day—and a great start to 2012.