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Inside the Mind of a Mad Scientist: The Incredible Importance of Personal Science

Inside the Mind of a Mad Scientist: The Incredible Importance of Personal Science

For decades the world’s greatest doctors and researchers believed that stomach ulcers and stomach cancers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid in the stomach.

Barry Marshall, an Australian physician and microbiology researcher, wasn’t buying it. Marshall believed that stomach ulcers were not merely the byproduct of a hectic life or an overly spicy dinner. Instead, he believed ulcers were caused by bacteria. More specifically, Marshall believed ulcers were caused by Helicobacter pylori.

There was, however, a problem with this theory.

Marshall and his lab partner were pretty much the only people who bought into the crazy idea. Despite his belief, Marshall had been unable to prove the link between bacteria and ulcers in his lab experiments on pigs, and his grant money was running out. Meanwhile, thousands of people continued to die from stomach cancer each year.

The Mad Scientist

Fed up with the situation, Marshall decided to take matters into his own hands and conduct a personal science experiment of the boldest kind.

In July of 1984, Marshall held a beaker of cloudy, brown liquid that was swimming with Helicobacter pylori and prepared to take a swallow. He “drank it down in one gulp then fasted for the rest of the day.”

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In the words of physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, Marshall had swallowed a carcinogen to create a precancerous state in his own stomach.

Three days later, Marshall started feeling nauseous. On Day 5, he began to vomit and continued doing so for three days straight. All the while, his colleague took samples of the bacteria in Marshall’s stomach lining and recorded the physiological changes as Marshall began to develop a severe episode of gastritis in his stomach. After two weeks of self-induced hell, Marshall had the proof he needed and began taking antibiotics.

Luckily he made a full recovery. Within a month, Marshall and his colleagues had submitted his experiment and results to the Medical Journal of Australia for publication. Not only had they proven that Helicobacter pylori was the cause of stomach ulcers, they had also revealed an important precursor to stomach cancer. Marshall and his lab partner, Robin Warren, received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their efforts.

helicobacter-pylori
    Helicobacter pylori under the microscope. (Photographer: Yutaka Tsutsumi, M.D. Image Source: Department of Pathology, Fujita Health University School of Medicine.)

    The Power of Personal Science

    Barry Marshall is a real-life mad scientist. He drank a cancerous cocktail in the hopes of discovering a scientific truth. His story is one of many mentioned in the fantastic book, The Emperor of All Maladies (audiobook). (1)

    Marshall is an extreme case of what my friend Josh Kaufman calls “personal science.”

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    Personal science refers to the idea of executing small experiments on your own with the intention of discovering new ways to solve problems and get results in your life. While typical studies are conducted on a large scale and published in academic journals, personal science experiments involve a single patient (you) and are focused on delivering highly practical and useful pieces of information.

    Marshall used personal science to further his career goals, whereas you and I may use personal science to build a new health habit or improve our performance at work. The goal of these mini-experiments is to discover what gets you real-world results. As a writer and researcher who tries to blend science-based ideas with practical insights, I believe this philosophy of self-experimentation is incredibly important.

    Why?

    Because no matter how much science and theory you understand, you can never get results in your own life unless you have the courage to take action.

    Unleashing Your Inner Mad Scientist

    Personal science isn’t an excuse to do something reckless. I don’t, for example, recommend drinking a test tube of precancerous bacteria. I do, however, believe that executing your own experiments and having a willingness to try things will make your life better.

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    Here are a few reasons why:

    Personal science forces you to move past planning. If you want to accelerate your learning, develop new skills, and get useful results, then you must try new things. So often we wait to take action because we believe we need to read or research more. What if, as an alternative, we spent less time trying to find the best strategy and more time testing the strategies we already have? It can be easy to forget that practice is often the most powerful form of learning.

    Personal science is low risk. Unlike Marshall’s crazy cancer slushie, nearly any experiment you or I will conduct is typically low risk. Rarely do we face life-or-death, cancer-in-the-stomach type of risks. Usually, the barriers to our progress are discomfort, uncertainty, inconvenience, and the fear of criticism. Personal science forces us to move past these emotional hurdles and see them for what they really are: limiting beliefs.

    Here are some examples:

    • Wish you would finally write your book? Experiment with cutting out an activity you enjoy to make time for this important goal. What is the potential risk? Are you really worried that you’ll miss this season of your favorite TV show?
    • Trying to eat healthier? Create a bright-line rule and experiment with eating one vegetable per day, no matter what. What is the potential risk? That you’ll have a long day and have to make a batch of asparagus at 10 p.m.?
    • Want to be an early riser? Experiment with waking up at 5 a.m. this week. What is the potential risk? That you’ll feel tired for a week?

    Personal science teaches you the key to true problem solving. We often read books and rely on research studies for the answers to our problems. Knowing where to get information is a useful skill, but the key to good problem solving is not to have someone else do the work for you. The key to good problem solving is a willingness to try things, experiment thoughtfully, and do the work. (2)

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    Step Into the Arena

    We all live our lives in different laboratories. Your corner of the world—filled with your experiences, your biology, your environment, your friends, your beliefs—is a different petri dish than mine. There are plenty of fundamentals that apply to all petri dishes, but no matter where you find yourself you have to be willing to experiment if you want to get a result.

    Let your mad scientist out every now and then. Step into the arena and put yourself through the fire. The only truth is what works for you. (3)

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.
    FOOTNOTES
    1. The Emperor of All Maladies really is an incredible read. I highly recommend it, especially if you love science. Or, if you just want to be blown away by the amount of effort one author can put into a book.
    2. This does not, by the way, mean that others do not have a responsibility to teach and to share their knowledge. Just because we should help one another, however, does not mean you are entitled to having others figure your problems out for you.
    3. Thanks to Siddhartha Mukherjee, Josh Kaufman, and Matt Gemmell who each inspired pieces of this article.

    Featured photo credit: Penn State via flickr.com

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    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on May 28, 2020

    9 Things Successful People Do To Always Get What They Want

    9 Things Successful People Do To Always Get What They Want

    One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to take on the job of hosting my own weekly radio show. My radio show is about finding some of the most successful people in the world and bringing them on my show to ask them about what they did to become so successful in life and business.

    In this article, I’m going to share with you some of the key takeaways I’ve picked up from talking to – and reading about – thought leaders from various fields about the things successful people do. Here, you can get some insights on how to get what you want.

    Ready to dive in? Let’s go.

    1. They Know What They Want

    The first and most important thing that successful people do to always get what they want is so simple that most people forget about it: they figure out what they actually want.

    When you know what you want, you will also know how to get what you want. If you’re unsure about what you want in life and business, I’d suggest picking up some career and self-improvement books to help you gain some clarity and focus.

    2. They Are Assertive

    Successful people know that they need to be both bold and sincere. Balancing these two characteristics is the essence of assertiveness.

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    Oh, and by the way – being assertive is not a natural talent someone is born with. Assertiveness is a learned skill and anyone can do it, including you!

    3. They Learn

    You may have heard of the old saying, “great leaders are readers”. For the most part, I’d say this is true.

    Let me give you an example. On my radio show, I regularly ask successful people about their habits that lead to success. Do you want to know something really neat? Every single one of them reads books.

    Successful people read and learn as much as they can about what they want so that they can get what they want. If you’re curious about how to get what you want, then start reading a book. If you’re low on time, subscribe to a book summary site to get the core concepts of the books in your industry quickly.

    4. They Make Things Meaningful

    One of the most powerful things successful people do to always get what they want is that they make things meaningful. That is, they ensure that whatever endeavor they decide to embark upon is meaningful to them (and not necessarily to anyone else). They know and understand that it’s only worth it if it matters.

    5. They Ask

    One big thing that successful people always do to get what they want is this: they ask.

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    Most people are too shy to ask for what they really want. If you are too shy to ask, you may never know how to get what you want. So, don’t be like most people.

    Here’s an exercise you can do to get over it: next time you’re buying something, regardless of what it is, ask for a discount. Just do it. The worst-case scenario is that you’ll get a chuckle from the Barrista at Starbucks. The best-case scenario is that you’ll get comfortable with negotiating when it’s time to buy your next car.

    6. They Take Action

    Insight without action is useless. Successful people know that to always get what they want, they’ve got to take massive action.

    One of the most powerful exercises I’ve ever discovered is this: never leave the sight of a goal without taking some kind of action towards its achievement. In other words, as soon as you decide you want something or as soon as you set a goal of some kind, do something – anything – that shifts you closer towards getting it.

    7. They Use Their Time Wisely

    Have you ever heard of NET time? It stands for “No Extra Time”.

    For example: when you’re driving and sitting in traffic, are you listening to Mylie Cyrus? Or are you listening to an audiobook?

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    Successful people take NET time seriously. Get yourself some audiobook so you can start listening to the best business and self-improvement books available – all while you’re on your way to work in the morning.

    8. They Choose to Lead

    You don’t need to have formal authority to become a leader. You just need to choose yourself. All successful people know this, and so should you. Knowing how to get what you want requires knowing how to lead the way for others and yourself.

    Don’t wait for anyone else to do it, because the truth is that most people want to be led anyway. So, just step up and claim authority. Be the leader you wish you always had.

    9. They Contribute

    Successful people know that to get what they want, they have to be willing to help other people get what they want.

    What happens when you stop doing your job? What happens when you stop caring about your schoolwork? What happens when you become emotionally disconnected from a relationship?

    You suffer – that’s what happens. Successful people know and understand that in order to succeed, they need to contribute. They need to add value to the lives of others. They need to do their best so that they can become the best.

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    So, Now What?

    I hope this article has re-ignited the fire that you already had within you to be successful at any endeavor. The reason why I’m stressing the fact that you’ve already got everything you need to succeed and get what you want is that you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t already motivated to be successful.

    At the end of the day, however, all the insights in the world are worth nothing unless you combine them with action. When it’s all said and done, it’s your decision what you do with this list and how you apply it to your life and career.

    But if I may, here’s what I would suggest you consider as you get started doing the things to help you succeed:

    Review this list of the 9 things successful people do to always get what they want and then compare it with where you currently are at each one of these 9 things. Rate yourself in each one of the 9 things. Next, pick just ONE of them to work on every week.

    For example, if you find that you’d like to learn more about the business side of the company you work for, then go read the best business books to help you do that.

    Never stop learning. Always feed your mind with the knowledge you need to become as successful as possible within your area or industry. It doesn’t matter how busy you are. We’re all busy. Make the time to expand your knowledge.

    And remember: every key learning should be immediately followed with action.

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    Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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