Always Be Experimenting

The room is abuzz. The tables have been pushed against the walls, each displaying an impressive array of strange gadgets, Macbooks, and … a cardboard cake robot? There are people slowly moving from table to table, shaking hands, introducing themselves, and inspecting the gizmos in between impressed laughs and approving nods.

By all standards, this Demo Day is, indeed, impressive. But it’s not officially called a Demo Day. At least not in the startup incubator/accelerator sense of the phrase. This is the Hello World Camp Show & Tell. The kicker? The participants are between 8 and 12 years old.

An Art Bot

Free of the pressure of the judgmental gaze of onlooking VCs, these young inventors are beaming with pride for their creations and four days worth of hard work: a personal blog; a video game made with Game Salad; an Art Bot; and an elaborate robot complete with motion sensors, flickering light bulbs and moving parts. Even though they have, they are not trying to win anyone over here. They have not been through arduous bootcamps on how to pitch or inflate one’s worth. They just want you to tap the banana that turns on their Whack-a-Zombie video game.

“Hey guys!” calls out Gillian Gutenberg, the brains behind the Hello World Camp, to the room of energetic kids and their parents. “What is one thing that we all learned this week?”

“TRY! THREE! THINGS!” cry out the kids, in unison.

No, these kids weren’t taught to pander to a crowd. They were taught to experiment.

The Scientific Method

Broken down into simple, albeit formally structured, pieces one may look at conducting experiments along the following steps:

  1. Make observations of the world or context around you
  2. Formulate a hypothesis about how something works or should work
  3. Design and conduct an action or series of actions to test the hypothesis
  4. Evaluate the results
  5. Accept or reject the hypothesis
  6. If necessary, make and test a new hypothesis

Scientists will always formulate hypotheses that can be invalidated, otherwise, the experiment will have no conclusive end. For scientists, this is key; the hypothesis needs to be falsifiable. This then sets the objective for the experiment: to prove the hypothesis wrong.

This has a subtle but important corollary: just because a hypothesis is not proven wrong does not mean that it has been validated. It just means that you can now move on to perform more experiments, only now with a more refined understanding of what works — or more accurately, what doesn’t.

The un-Scientific Method

In our daily lives, it is not always practical to follow a rigorous framework to experiment with things. More often than not, however, we stand to gain more from trying something new or changing one thing about how we do things than if we were to never venture out from our routine. The act of trying something that has a chance of not working will almost always inevitably teach us something new — about how the world works (or not) or about ourselves.

Do you always take the same path to work? Try a different route. You might discover less traffic.

Do you always order the avacado-chicken wrap at your local deli? Try the Sheppard’s Pie instead. You might end up recommending it to others.

The above, of course, are not profound. But experiments usually aren’t. The steps of an experiment, by themselves, are often mundane and perhaps even boring. The insights that one may receive from the results, however, can be illuminating.

Be like Children

Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, was famous for his belief in children, and arguably, a symmetric disbelief in the suffocation of our childlike powers as we age. He continuously questioned adults for losing their sense of curiosity and courage to try things. In fact, he goes so far as to say the following:

A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.

And a sure way to break out of mundane habit and convention is to experiment. If you can retain the sense of trying things that we normally have as children, you can go a long way to surprising yourself with discoveries, from the minute to the remarkable.

Try Three Things

This weekend, I experimented with three things, to varying degrees:

1) I walked to a new part of my neighbourhood and discovered a restaurant that makes affordable and delicious Philly cheese-steak subs. Achievement unlocked.

2) I wanted to start a regimen of making something new everyday. I hypothesized that there are others who are like me and want to become better Makers of things. So I setup a quick and dirty landing page and started spreading the word to gauge people’s interest level. I set myself a metric of 40% sign-up rate to prove to me that there was at least enough interest to go further down the route. Any less than that, and I would pull the plug and consider my hypothesis invalid.

3) I looked at my Amazon wishlist and saw how quickly it was growing and how little time I had to read through most of them. I found myself wishing I could get someone to give me a quick and awesome summary of some of the books that were sitting on my list for more than two years and realized I would happily pay $1 per summary. I hypothesized that there were others in my shoes. So in order to test it, I set up a poll on a Facebook group, and quickly set up a free and no-frills website and called it TL;DR Notes. I have started spreading the word on this too to see how people receive it.

Note that in none of the above cases, did I spend an inordinate amount of time or effort to try out something new. In one case I was rewarded. The jury is still out on the other two. But the moment you accept that something may not work, you allow yourself to feel rewarded no matter what the outcome. You get what you take, and you learn what you get. In the context of uncertainty, knowledge is bliss.

And then, just like the amazing kids at the Hello World Camp, you try your next three things.


This article appeared first on my personal blog, The Innovator’s Odyssey.

If you like any of the ideas above that I am experimenting with, please share it with your friends and contacts! Thanks in advance.

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