Mad Scientists: Designing the Experiments of Life


All life is an experiment.

The more experiments you make the better.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

ere we are again at one of those good-news-bad-news existential truths, namely, that all of us fully functioning humans are both authorized and condemned from birth to face the Great Homework Assignment of creating a potent and meaningful life for ourselves. And, like the taxing task facing Sisyphus, this is a chore that needs to be retackled every single morning when we are released from the world of dreams and deposited back into the world of reality. No matter the circumstances, we are responsible for what we choose to do with this day and what we choose to not do with it.

With more pith – to be human is to be charged with the task of uniqueing.

I think of uniqueing as the creation of what Sartre called “our original project.” Our original project takes shape as we intentionally design and implement plans for the innumerable aspects of our life that will come to define us as uniquely, coherently ourselves. Our choices and our actions will need to cover all the elements of being alive – professional, relational, recreational, physical, creative, spiritual, financial, philosophical and on and on. The result of uniqueing is the “essence” referred to in the hallmark existential aphorism “Existence precedes essence.” The meaning of your life, this aphorism tells you, is created by you in how you choose to handle the fact that you exist in the particular situation in which you find yourself.

And, here we are again at one of those philosophical impasses where the words ring true, our souls are stirred but our pragmatic side is simply saying, “Wait, what?”

Our pragmatic side deserves an assist here, which we can give it if we augment the inspiration of existential thinking with the realism of women’s ways of knowing. In the interest of visualization and with apologies to gender theorists such as the erudite Judith Butler, if we think of existential thought as coming from the voice of the grandfather (There are dreadfully difficult existential givens that you must simply accept and face.) and we think of constructivist thought as coming from the voice of the grandmother (All knowing is speculative and is built in relation to context, experience, time and other thinkers.), we can see how the two orientations can provide an inclusive and complete blueprint for designing life experiments.

The result of this blended voice inside my head is an heuristic describing four moves for uniqueing.

Four moves for uniqueing

The First Move: As with the fashioning of solid self-esteem, the first move toward uniqueing is self-extraction. What we are obliged to extract ourselves from here are hundreds of years of bad parenting. (Take a moment to visualize all your ancestors flaring out behind you exponentially and think about what their childhoods were likely like. You can quickly imagine that there were undoubtedly some pretty poor upbringings within that 100-year span, upbringings full of harsh and patriarchal "life lessons" that were codified and passed on unexamined through the generations.) It cannot be overstated that bringing up children has historically been way too much about obedience and conformity and ownership and not nearly enough about fostering our children's inborn drive to find their personal way in the world. Now, please understand that I absolutely believe that children ought be taught how to respect boundaries, develop empathy, pursue moral high ground and so on, but those lessons ought not prevent children from being supported in their natural tendency toward experimentation.

The initial handful of articles on this website are designed to guide you through this first, often huge, step. You need to understand that your being somewhat lost in your personal quest is not your fault. Like the English countryside during WWII, many of the road signs that should have been there to help you find your way were blanked out or falsified during your childhood. You should also reject any internalized shame that is left over from the inappropriately dispensed humiliations of your youth. I can guarantee without reservation that nothing you did growing up was deserving of the cruelty of shame. Next you will want to be clear how your particular upbringing failed to serve you adequately and what good enough parenting ought to have looked like for you. You will benefit from an internalized set of strong parental voices to consult with as you work to design your daily experiments. Finally, it helps to understand that moving into adulthood always involves exploring the myths that were used to raise you so that you can keep those that you cherish and eliminate those that repel you. As you can tell from the number of links in this paragraph to other articles, many existential skills undergird this move to remediate the cultural and familial damage done to your individuality. But when you have put these self-construction skills in place, you will be much less vulnerable to inherited default settings that may compromise your ability to be audaciously you.

The Second Move: After the self-extraction step, we need to put in place within ourselves the ability to be transparent to ourselves. What self-transparency means in this context is being capable, on a fairly regular basis, of taking an unabashed look at the following questions:

Am I taking myself seriously by paying attention to who I am becoming?

Do I hold myself accountable when assessing how I am doing?

Do I find my original projects delightful?

Am I committed to identifying what I want most to be true about me?

Have I created friendships with people whom I can trust to speak truth to me?

Am I using my time with an appropriate level of urgency?

Transparency within is extremely difficult to achieve, especially since all of us have inside our minds residual shame schemas discouraging us from looking too deeply into what we are doing with our lives. Self-transparency starts with the idea that I can be a person who can design a unique life for myself. Then it pays attention to the extent to which one is doing that. Often we will need to rehabilitate both our healthy defensive systems and our self-esteem in order to support the level of courage and ego strength required to habituate to this line of inquiry. We will also want to detoxify our relationship with our petulant side.

And a little external structure probably wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps an existential nightly journal that reminds us to review and ponder this list of questions would be a wise idea. At the very least, it's helpful to get into the habit of tucking ourselves into bed each night with a little think directed by that set of parental voices balanced between challenge and support. “We are our choices,” Sartre chides us. Are we proud of the choices we’re making?

The Third Move: Now we can serve up the meat and potatoes of experimentation – actually designing our research. Most of us learned about scientific methodology in school, but probably not in a way that would suggest it has anything to do with our personal lives. Certainly no one recommended that we ought to use it to drive our uniqueing. Can you imagine that lesson in sixth grade?! But, actually, most of us do use the scientific method when designing our lives, albeit unconsciously, but usually just to correct a situation that has gotten our attention.

The scientific method starts with observation. If, in your observation of how you’re doing, you decide that something needs to be redesigned, you generate an hypothesis about what might work better. Then you design an experiment to test your hypothesis. Let’s say when you review your day, you find more and more frequently that you have been indulging in a sloppy habit. It could be something specific like excessive retail therapy or something more general such as moodiness. You decide that you want the behavior modified, so you design a strategy to do that. If you’re theoretically inclined, you might read a book or two to explore why the sloppiness has increased. If not, you simply try a strategy that has worked for you in the past. To curtail spending you might use the tried-and-true writing of the budget. For moodiness, you might use mindfulness to help support a more optimistic outlook. You put the new strategy to work and watch. What you are doing while watching is data collection. What is the frequency and intensity of your shopping? How often are you moody? Very quickly your brain will move to the next step in the methodology of experimentation, which is analyzing the data. Am I shopping more or less? Are my moods better or worse or just the same? Finally, you have a discussion with yourself about the analysis and draw a conclusion. Hooray! Your concretizing your budget helps limit the type of shopping that brings on dismay. You will likely encourage yourself to continue to write out a monthly financial plan. If it doesn’t work, however, you go back to the drawing board.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, to stop and think about how much scientific design we do put into our lives as we cycle through the steps of research: observation, hypothesis, designing an experiment, gathering and analyzing the data, discussion and conclusion. Makes you feel like you should have one of those nicely starched white lab coats with you name embroidered above the pocket!

The Fourth Move: The final move we mad scientists need to take would be the psychological equivalent of publish or perish. The kind of research that gets published is, ostensibly, that which adds to a body of knowledge that leads somewhere interesting. The same should be said of our personal research, it should be leading our lives somewhere amazing.

Most folks are enterprising when it comes to a self-help rearrangement of their lives, but not too many tap into the deeply vital gift humans have for self-creation. In order to maximize our uniqueing, we will want to move away from blind, chaotic or reactionary research design to intentional and theoretical research design. We will want to start asking ourselves that grandmother of all existential questions: What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?

The fourth move, then, is to fortify the target of your scientific investigation so that it exemplifies your deepest existential dreams. What the theorist in you wants to study is this question: what does it mean to me to be me? You need a fundamental project that can give a distinct shape to your life.

Nietzsche saw humans as “pregnant with a future” but only if they were able to reflect on their first person experience of their existence. What I’m talking about here is the idea of designing a body of research to explore the leading edge of you becoming you. In order to do this, you have to get comfortable with the idea of thinking big. Not necessarily big in terms of fame and fortune, but big in terms of staging your particular talents. This is an epic topic and is the subject of one of the gnarlier articles of this website: Finding Good Teachers: The Existential Whiz Kids.

Obstacles to potent existential research

Lethargy and Danger. The padded, warm rut that our life wants to settle into is the greatest obstacle to doing good research. Unless we can step out of that safe place to try new things, our lives will only go where the rut leads us. Rereading the articles on procrastination, petulance, willpower and will to power can help heave you out of your comfort zone. Of course stepping off the beaten path is risky and we often succumb to lethargy when facing that danger, but try to both seek out and take influence from cheerleading like this from Nietzsche: "To ‘give style’ to one’s character: a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan." Indeed, every article on this website reflects my wish to provide you with motivation to keep stepping toward greater and greater research verve.

Vague hypotheses. To most of us, thinking about our strengths and weaknesses is synonymous with suffering. We just don’t want to have to do it. And generating an hypothesis about how to give style to our lives is the hardest kind of thinking there is. It’s no wonder we avoid this step or rush through it as quickly as possible.

The best hypotheses build on honest observations and provide a supposition about what makes sense to try next. Like therapy, the process starts with an investigation into how things are going. Something’s bothering you or you’re hungry for something or you see something in the world you envy. Take these clues seriously and give them a dedicated think. The best hypotheses are also created in collaboration. Find people with whom you can discuss your current thinking and your best guesses about what to do next.

But, most of all, commit to writing out a clear, explicit and brave hypothesis. Existential hypotheses are always about resource allocation, about how you are spending your existence. So a template for writing hypotheses out might be: I am aware that I’m spending too much (time, money, energy, etc.) on _____________, which isn’t serving me at this time. If I want to my essence to be ___________, how can I shift my (time, money, energy, etc.) to move in that direction? What concrete step should I try next?

Aborting the experiment. Data collection takes time. How much time is going to require some guesswork. It’s been my observation that people tend to give up on their experiments too easily, so I would encourage you to try to visualize the long plateau that often precedes change or insight, and hang in there. Here, too, it’s wise to seek out both cheerleaders and consultants. Everything is easier when it is done within community.

Misinterpreting the data. Data are always friendly! This is a great and wonderful truth. Experiments are designed to generate information, so even research that doesn’t tell us what we want to hear will still tell us something useful. If we are trying to figure out if we are ready to work and go to school at the same time, for instance, we may be dismayed to see our grades slip after we take on a job. Perhaps the results of our experiment are telling us that we have found the upper limit of the hours we can work and still maintain good grades. Perhaps our dropping grades mean we’re not ready to do both. Or perhaps the data are telling us that we can work but we’ll have to be more vigilant than we have been about studying. Whatever it is, the data are telling us something. What they may not be doing is reinforcing our wishful thinking. If you find yourself massaging the data to support an outcome you crave, sit yourself down and have a think. You don’t have to give up on the outcome you want, but don’t ignore the data. Think, consult and perhaps redesign the experiment to try again, but don’t go beyond your data. They are friends trying to tell you something you may need to know.

The most exciting scientific discovery for each of us ought to involve the exploration of who we are becoming. Using experiments great and small, we research the question: What do I want to be true about me?

A day spent uniqueing is a day well spent!

An example: A recent spat in our neighborhood sent me back into investigating something I thought I knew about myself. I am a polite person. I value politeness, the empathy required to be specifically courteous and the effort it takes to enact civil behaviors. It was shocking to me to be accused of being impolite. I began to investigate my hypothesis that I am a polite person. As the data rolled in, I found many examples of the courteous acts I value, but I also found times when I was brusque or didactic. After a good think, I realized that, while my outward behavior was most often polite, inside my skull kingdom I was very often impatient and dismissive. The data showed me something that generated a new line of inquiry: is it important to me to be polite or to be seen as polite? Not much of a think was required to recognize that I want to be polite whether or not people always see my behavior as such. I decided to experiment with aligning my two worlds to see if increasing my interior civility would affect the percentage of my outward politeness. I’ll let you know what I find out…

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.