Why experiments are preferable to goals

We are taught that the relentless pursuit of big hairy audacious goals is a path toward a meaningful life… but is it really? For every Oprah, there are a million who never take a step toward their goals, who are derailed somewhere along the way or who persist but sadly never reached the finish line. And a goal once achieved soon begins to fade and may not lead to any lasting change – like a trophy gathering dust in the attic.

Pursuing life goals may be preferable to having no purpose at all, but there is a better way. I have found more success, meaning and purpose in seeding experiments.

Seed analogy

Experimenting with something new is like planting a seed in your heart. After you try the activity a few times, you begin to feel it swell within you. You have the first inklings that this activity could produce fruit and be fulfilling.

Or maybe the experiment is unsuccessful and the seed does not sprout. The activity is pointless, destructive or diverts you from something more meaningful. You realize that this experiment is fruitless and cast it aside.

The promising seed still requires constant care and protection to thrive. It is not so difficult to give the young sprout attention though because you are growing with it and feeling it enrich your life.

The fruit from your experiment is small at first but delicious and sweet. Each year, depending on the care you give it, the fruit is larger and sweeter. You share it with others. You might even try planting a new kind of seed.1

My experiment

A few years ago my wife announced that she had signed me up to coach my son’s T-Ball team… without talking to me about it first. I was upset. Like adult-tantrum upset. I had never coached in my life. I hadn’t played baseball since I was 12. We had a vacation planned for a week in the middle of the season. My job wouldn’t allow enough time for this.

I threatened to call the league office and tell them that I wanted out, but my son was excited to have me as his coach and I wanted him to play. So after going through the stages of grief a few times, I gave in.

I was a few minutes late to the first practice because of traffic and had to miss a game but ended up having a great experience that season. There is nothing more entertaining than watching an over-eager 5-year-old run in the wrong direction after getting his first hit. I enjoyed coaching so much that last year that I coached two of my girls in volleyball and would have done so this year if COVID-19 had not cancelled everything.

Seeding successful experiments

Here are some of the guidelines to seeding a successful experiment.

Selecting an experiment

If you feel inspired or called to try something new, go for it. If an activity looks enjoyable or seems like it could enrich your life, give it a try. If a loved one asks you to or if the activity could help someone in need, don’t fight it. 

Here are a few examples of experiments:

  • Taking an art class or a class through your gym
  • Going to church every week for a month
  • Cooking a new healthy meal once a day for a week
  • Volunteering somewhere once a week for a month
  • Trying to meditate or pray for 10 minutes for a week

The initial experiment

One good way to experiment is through a class, an app, a trainer or a friend who can show you the way. Ask your guide why she is passionate about the activity and try to understand what benefits she derives from it. I certainly enjoyed running more after someone explained to me what a runner’s high felt like.

Consider taking out or scaling back something meaningless from your life to make room for your experiment (e.g. television, sleeping too much, social media). You can add it back in if the experiment is unsuccessful. Without taking something out, there may not be enough time and energy for future experimental upgrades.

Trying an activity once is generally not enough for an experiment to yield results. For example, you should never try snowboarding for only one day. That first day on the mountain is mostly out of control, jarring and cold. By the third day though, most people are getting the hang of it and can tell if snowboarding is for them.

Turing experiments into habits

Experiments are relatively small commitments. If you do not enjoy the experience you should stop and try something else. But if you revel in the day-to-day process of your experiment and feel good about what you are doing, it will be relatively easy to continue. Create a space in your life for your new activity. Find a way to make it a habit.

Video games are enticing in part because players enjoy working through increasingly difficult levels. As you work to turn your experiment into a habit, create opportunities to progress from level to level of competence. Move from the beginner course to the intermediate and advanced levels. You may never win Olympic gold, but you can still find joy in progress.

Finding joy in becoming

Habits performed long enough can change you. They can be the seemingly insignificant means by which you find more purpose in life, are more connected with those around you and find strength to overcome distractions that hold you back.

A child should not worry about becoming the greatest basketball player who ever lived. He obviously does not need to win every game at any cost. Instead, the child should enjoy playing each game with his friends. He should practice his shot and learn new moves. Each year he and his team will level up and find increasing joy as they expertly play the game. And some day he will either move on to a more meaningful experiment or the game will bring him life-long joy.

I have planted good seeds and bad seeds. I have carefully nourished promising sprouts and let others wither in the sun only to be revived decades later. So it is with experiments. Go ahead. Try something new. Try it for a month. And then comment below or email me on how a successful experiment improved your life.

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