2012: My year of experiments

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.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “2012: My year of experiments

  1. Just want to check in here and say I ADORE HERMINIA IBARRA! I first found her through her work on network analysis… and then this was her new project and mega fanclub!

  2. I recently gave advice to a former student worker about how to choose what to do after graduation. A BA in Art History is not exactly the best training for a job, though a good liberal arts education is great background for a fulfilling life.

    I told her to try out different work environments, corporate, small business, education etc. to see what suits her best. Basically, getting practice at “working” might help her decide if more education or training is what she needs. I wish I’d had more of a plan when I was younger. I’m not unhappy with the path I’ve taken, but I often stayed in bad jobs or took similar ones because I didn’t view them as a training ground which would serve me later on in life. I’ll be interested to see your progress on these monthly goals. Maybe I could learn a few more things too.

  3. I like your plan for experimenting. As for your goal for this month — t reminds me of a powerful exercise Carolyn See recommends in Making a Literary Life. She recommends sitting down every day to write one letter, email or letter-to-the editor to someone you don’t know — to acknowledge them, their work, ask a question, whatever. I did this for one month and was floored by the doors it opened up and just how hopeful it made me. Though I don’t practice this daily anymore, I always listen to my urges to connect with folks. And, since I am process-oriented about this, I don’t care if they don’t respond. A non-response is information, too.

    • I love the Carolyn See twist! Will file it away for future reference–thanks so much for sharing it. And yes, process orientation is so helpful, in my experience. Happy New Year!

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