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You: The Science Experiment

You: The Science Experiment
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    I don’t expect you’ll be drinking mystery potions or hooking yourself up to a car battery anytime soon. But conducting personal experiments are probably the best way to find answers. By actually testing (instead of assuming) your habits, beliefs, methods and systems you can make real improvements.

    Stop Theorizing, Look at Results

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, recommends against using complex theories if they can’t predict anything. Humans are theory machines, trying to explain things which might not easily fit into our reduced model of reality. By experimenting, you look at what actually works, not just what you feel should work.

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    If you set up your personal experiment appropriately, the results should speak for themselves. I know many online business owners who use A/B split tests religiously. Instead of assuming they know what will sell, they simply divide web traffic between two different pages and see what drives results.


    Gaps in Knowledge

    Humans have an ability to focus on what we do know, instead of what we don’t. The way we store information neatly conceals our own ignorance. And it is in these gaps that you can often find new opportunities and solutions. But if your own arrogance keeps you from trying, you may miss them entirely.

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    An experiment can fill those gaps. By giving an idea a full test, you get information that wouldn’t be available simply by guessing.

    Reduce Bias

    A personal experiment can never reach the calculated and sterile environment of a double-blind trial. But personal experiments reduce the chances that you’ve been acting on superstition instead of results. How would your life change if you found out:

    • You could do all your e-mail work once a day (or once a week!)
    • Your energy levels doubled after increasing your exercise and improving your diet.
    • Using a different technique you could cut studying time in half while learning more.
    • Using gap time you can read a book per week without cutting time from your schedule.
    • One work activity you regularly engage in has almost no effect.

    You probably already have assumptions about the answers to these questions. Experimentation means you are bold enough to say, “I don’t know.” Being skeptical can let you trust the results of a test, more than superficial theories.

    How to Run a Personal Experiment

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    Achieving objectivity with a sample size of yourself isn’t possible. But simply throwing scientific practice to the whim and “trying things out” is likely to lead to more bias, not less. Maintaining some measure of objectivity when testing ideas will ensure you get accurate results and they aren’t polluted by your own prejudices.

    Here are some steps to running an experiment:

    1. Isolate Measurements. An experiment needs to measure something. Quantitative results (weight, traffic, income) are better than qualitative ones (happiness, service, stress). But more important is to choose measurements that accurately reflect your goal. Picking the wrong measurement will tune your experiment to focus on incorrect results.
    2. Stay Consistent. Testing to see whether a different work routine is better won’t help if you try different routines every day. Outline your experiment on paper and commit to following it for a specified length of time. Shortened trials and inconsistent data make experiments worthless.
    3. Keep Comparison Information. Most scientific experiments have a control group. This ensures that there is a real difference instead of an imagined one. In some areas you can get comparison information through a split test, dividing inputs between your experiment and the control. In other areas you will need to be satisfied with a careful record of pre-experiment results to see if changes have occurred.
    4. Withhold Early Judgement. Ignorance and humility are the keys to running a successful experiment. Pulling the plug too early might not give enough time to show results. I usually spend a month or two testing an experiment before I decide if it is worthwhile.

    Experiments to Try

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    The world isn’t obvious. That statement itself may sound a little obvious, but I believe it is too often missed. We expect the world to behave according to explicit theories inside our head, when in reality, it is far more complex. Experimentation and focusing on actual results, allows you to take advantage of your ignorance.

    Here are some ideas you might want to consider trying:

    • Internet Once a Day – Set an internet time once a day for all e-mail, surfing and contact. I’ve done this before and been amazed at how much my net usage can be compressed.
    • Daily Exercise – A few weeks ago I posted an article on changing habits, where I recommended exercising every day if you plan to start. A few commenters informed me how this would lead to injury. Although I don’t recommend hurting yourself, I haven’t seen this to be the case in myself or many people I know. Poor form from trying to lift too much weight is a more likely culprit.
    • Go Veg – I’m a fan of a vegetarian diet because I believe it works to give more energy. But don’t trust me, trust an experiment for yourself.
    • Morning/Night Work – Try waking up early to get work done. Or try working on projects later in the night. Different rhythms work best for different people and lifestyles. Experiment, don’t judge.
    • Time Usage – Be skeptical of the efficacy of anything you spend time on. Test ruthlessly, because a small test can end up saving thousands of hours in otherwise wasted productivity.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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