I’m a planner by nature. I love planning long term. I can’t help it. As in months and years. For instance, this month I’ll work on this. Next month I’ll work on that. November is for a specific project. December is for another project. The first six months of next year will be spent working on a particular project.
Since I work for myself and don’t adhere to a particular structure, planning gives me a certain sense of sanity and predictability in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world. It let’s me know that if I just stick to my plans, that things will turn out alright, that things will work out. It gives me comfort in knowing that all this uncertainty will fall into place.
However, one thing I recently learned—accidentally—is that incredible breakthroughs usually occur as a result of something completely unplanned and random. They occur as a result of an experiment of some sort that has nothing to do with the things you were working on.
Last year, I was working on a software project with a partner. We had everything planned out, the business plan, the development cycle, the launch, etc. Everything to the minute detail. Everything was done according to plans but the results were lackluster. Although the business model was well planned, there was still something wrong.
So, we decided to switch gears and try something else. We decided to do something that we’d never planned. We decided to add a new random feature. It was an experiment. If it didn’t work, then no harm done, we’d just roll things back and go back to how things were.
Amazingly, the experiment turned out successful. The customers loved the feature. After more deliberation, we decided to implement this feature on a more permanent basis. Something that was purely ad-hoc and just an idea at that time became the centerpiece of our business model.
Experiments aren’t just useful in business endeavors; they should be implemented in life in general. The problem is that people are generally afraid of experimenting and deviating from their plans or status-quo. Why is that? The main reasons is because people tie their work to their ego and identity.
The power of identity
When we tie what we do to our identity, our actions become rigid and uncompromising, just like our identity. We refuse to experiment and try new things because we don’t easily change. We are who we are and since our actions are tied to us, they’re also pretty fixed.
It’s like being a shy, nerdy kid all your life and then one day decide to start going out to clubs and posting pictures of yourself on Facebook. Suddenly, you changed your identity and your friends noticed. There will be comments and feedback, both positive and negative.
But you’re not your experiments. You are still you, while your experiments are something else. They don’t represent you. They’re temporary and fleeting in nature. They may last a couple of days, or a couple of months. And if they deliver the results you need, then you integrate them into whatever you’re doing. If they don’t work out as planned, you discard them. They’re never tied to your identity because they don’t represent who you are.
The problem with planning is that you’re essentially having blind faith that things will work out in some distant (or not so distant) future. Experiments help you break out of this. They provide an important spark of imagination and freedom from an otherwise monotonous lifestyle. They’re the anti-thesis of monotone long term planning of things that may never materialize.
If you want to build a business, don’t aim for the sky and try to build a Fortune 500 company from the get-go. Think small. Open up shop (physical or online) and begin selling stuff. If people like what you offer—if what you’re selling solves their problems—they’ll gladly give you their money and you’ll become successful. Later on, depending on what your customers want, you can begin offering new products and services. In fact, that’s actually how most successful brands and companies grew from their humble beginnings. They do it step by step, via experiments.
If you want to change your life, don’t plan the next five of years; take baby steps. Plan a trip to Brazil for a couple of months. When I flew to Brazil on a one-way ticket, I never anticipated that I will stay there for two and a half years. I didn’t know anyone there. I had no business in the country. All I said to myself was that I will go to a new country for a month or so and see what happens. Two and a half years later I left the country, where I credit spending one of the best times of my life.
While I certainly loved Brazil, it’s completely possible that Brazil might not be for you.
Taking risks is important. Life without risks is a conventional, boring, stagnant life. When you don’t deviate from a defined path, you’re simply doing what others have done before you; and there can be no fortune when you follow a well-defined path.
But taking too many unnecessary risks is also not prudent. The solution is to take small, calculated risks. Follow along a well-defined path, but also deviate with a mixture of experiments. Try that idea that you’ve been putting off for months or years. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, then no harm done.
Any successful life is constructed via a series of small, calculated experiments. Tolerable risk gives life meaning and moves things forward. Believe me, you’ll be surprised at the outcome.
The objective is to do things organically, to grow and move forward as a result of natural demand for your skills and services, not because of some one-sided planning that may never materialize because nobody cares what you do and whether you exist or not. That’s how you grow, that’s how you move forward.
Experimenting has been a huge game changer for me. It has changed the way I think, act and behave. It has given me a true sense of freedom that I simply didn’t have before when I lived a more “structured” life.
Experiments don’t need to be complex; that’ll simply defeat their purpose. Keep it simple and playful. Remember when you were a kid and did things because you felt like it? When you didn’t care what others thought of your actions? When you never questioned your actions from the point of view of others?
Whenever I feel I’m stuck with something, I know that it’s time to experiment. I know that I need to try something new, something that goes against my pre-existing beliefs and thoughts. If I feel doing something makes me uncomfortable because it threatens who I am as a person, then I know I must do it.
Start by disconnecting your identity from your actions. Experiment with the things you always wanted to do but were afraid to because how you felt you might be perceived by others. To succeed, you must break out of the straightjacket of predictability. Experiments show you the way.
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