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Think of It as an Experiment

written by Kathryn Britton 3 April 2014

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

When I was a little girl, my mother had a habit of saying, whenever anything frightening or uncomfortable happened, “Think of it as an adventure.”

So getting stopped by the cops for speeding on our way from the Bronx to New Haven was an adventure. Moving from North Carolina to Idaho in 24 hours during a family crisis was an adventure. Driving on a mountainous road in Idaho and having the tire go off the edge of the road so that we had to wait until someone came along to pull us back on the road was an adventure. Having the car break down in the middle of Nevada on a road where very few cars went by in an afternoon, that also was an adventure.

The statement certainly changed our awareness of the situation. We hadn’t been thinking about how many cars went by on these country roads. We hadn’t been thinking about how we could get by with what we had. We hadn’t been thinking about all that it takes to set up a household. We hadn’t been thinking about how important it was that we had a huge extended family in Idaho that would donate everything from dressers to a picnic table made from a plywood sheet on a rake-teeth frame (an agricultural rake, not one of those backyard jobs).

So it’s a family joke to say, “Think of it as an adventure.” It’s a reminder that we are courageous and resourceful survivors.

In the last year, I’ve picked up a similar statement for any time that I, my family, my friends, or my clients are trying to make a change: “Think of it as an experiment.”

Looking for Win-Win Changes

I thank Stewart Friedman, Wharton professor and author of Total Leadership, for getting me started on this thought trail. He is known for work-life integration, that is, looking for actions that benefit multiple domains of life at a time, rather than looking for tradeoffs that balance them precariously against each other. If work and home and community and self are not in conflict—if we can find actions that benefit more than one domain at a time—we are better able to reach for a fulfilling life.

But finding these actions is no easy matter given that we are so used to picturing these domains in conflict.

So Friedman recommends conducting life as a set of small experiments. Figure out something that might be a win-win, or even better a win-win-win, or best of all, a win-win-win-win. Then try it out.

Does it work? Great! You’ve made progress toward making your life work the way you want it to work.

Does it not work? Great! You have a chance to learn more about what motivates you and others, what kinds of actions lead to better habits and structures in your life, and what might be your own personal dead-ends.

An Example

I’m going to tell a story that is a composite of multiple stories from different people to make this point.

Let’s assume you are a young father with small children, a demanding job in a big city, and the beginning of a weight problem. Your supervisor has just told you that he needs for you to meet with potential clients in the evenings to do that networking thing that leads to more business. Thinking in terms of multiple wins, you propose to your manager that you can do this (benefiting your work), and on those days, you leave early enough that you can walk home (benefiting yourself), play with your children and eat dinner with them (benefiting your home, since you often get home too late for family dinners). You also express a preference for certain kinds of clients who are doing work that you think contributes to your community in a positive way (benefiting your community). Your boss says, “Sure, let’s give it a try.” He had been expecting a lot more push-back from you, so he is relieved that you are agreeing without argument.

You try it for a month. During that time, you find that you yourself are the problem. You can’t quite bring yourself to leave the office on time to walk home. There’s always one more thing to do, so often you don’t even make it in time to have dinner with the children. What have you learned about yourself? You’re somebody that doesn’t make transitions easily. Once you start something, it’s hard for you to make yourself stop. Your wife laughs that you stay up late because you have trouble stopping what you’re doing to go to bed and then you have trouble stopping sleeping to get up in the morning. So that experiment just doesn’t work for you.

So time for experiment 2. You go back to your boss and propose that on the days that you are scheduled to go out with clients, you come in late. That way, you get to have a leisurely breakfast with your children, walk them to school and preschool, walk to work, and then get into the daily grind.

That pattern works so well for you that you ask your boss for permission to come in late every day, reminding him that you are often home too late to be with your children at dinner. On some of those days, you walk to work. On others, you go to the gym to work out after you’ve taken your children to school. This experiment works for you, with the added benefit that your wife is really appreciative about the time she has in the morning to pursue one of her priorities. Another win for the home domain.

Experiment 2 evolves into experiment 3. Other people at work have noticed your new schedule. They see that you are becoming trimmer, the spare tire melting from your waist. They are starting to experiment with ways to add exercise back into their lives. Somebody suggests a new experiment: let’s all wear pedometers and compete to see how many steps we can log during a day. That introduces a friendly competition that benefits all the members in your department. It also benefits the community, since many people achieve their steps by walking rather than driving to work. It even benefits the work because people become more alert and energetic.

So why does this matter?

Prochaska and colleagues made a statement in their wonderful book, Changing for Good:

“Guilt and self-blame are actually very ineffective change processes. They tend to cripple change efforts, not stimulate them.” (p. 227)

Thinking of change efforts as experiments means that even if they don’t work, they are sources of greater self-understanding that can lead to other experiments that do work. Instead of leading to guilt that undermines the will to change, experimenting leads to new ingenuity.

Let me also draw into this discussion a reflection about any advice that you find about how to live a healthier, happier life. Over the last 7 years, we’ve published many many articles with suggestions for making life more meaningful, more loaded with positive moments, more resilient, more motivated, and so on. We’ve cited research that supports these statements, but we can’t really predict what will work in your life. Positive psychology provokes skepticism such as that reflected in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. Sometimes our readers comment that an approach didn’t work for them, or that gratitude works better for women than men, or that being optimistic is being silly and unrealistic.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal was asked the question, “How is a lay person to know who to believe when someone contradicts what another person claims to be backed by research?” I’m embedding her answer here because it reminds us how to think about research:

I applaud her advice about applying ideas such as the ones you read here: “People need to treat themselves like they are their own science experiments.” Even the best studies are based on averages. She suggests you try things out, but are willing to believe your own data. Some of us will be outliers. An experiment may work really well for you, or it may not work at all. Both results may be consistent with the results of the studies, which can only characterize what happens across populations at large.

That’s why Marie-Josée and I included 50 different avenues to better health in our Smarts and Stamina book. We don’t expect anybody to do them all, but they provide ideas for experiments to people that want find out what works for them individually.

Go forth, and think of it as an experiment, and perhaps as an adventure as well.


Comtois, K. (2013). Integration is better than balance. Positive Psychology News.

Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Friedman, S. (2008). Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. Harvard Business Review Press.

McGonigal, K. (2013). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Avery Trade.

McGonigal, K. (2014). Kelly McGonigal Discusses Scientific Research. PreventionDiseaseTV.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.


Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Nevada road – nobody in sight courtesy of mkrigsman
A small detour on the walk to preschool courtesy of [phil h]
Work-life design grid courtesy of giletti
Pedometers change behavior courtesy of origami_potato

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Senia 3 April 2014 - 2:17 pm


I’ve read and enjoyed many of your articles over the years, and have shared many of them with clients and colleagues. This is my favorite article of all that you’ve written.

I would love to see you turn this content into a TEDx talk!


Christine Duvivier 3 April 2014 - 2:55 pm

Hi Kathryn, I love your article and your great examples about experimenting and integrating aspects of your life. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and practical ideas!

All the best,

angus Skinner 3 April 2014 - 3:05 pm

Nice piece Kathryn. I should certainly become thinner! And should.

I take from this more importance of enjoying life, savouring and above all doing.

Carefully written – I shall treasure this.

Best aye

Scott Crabtree 3 April 2014 - 3:14 pm


This is a great article, thank you! It’s a wonderful reminder of the “test and learn” strategy in Ibarra’s article “How to stay stuck in the wrong career”. This experimental approach has been enormously helpful to me in my new(ish) career, too.

And great clip from Kelly McGonigal, too.

I’ll spread the word about this. 🙂

Keep up the great work,

Sherri Fisher 4 April 2014 - 6:56 am

Kathryn, I am with Senia–This is probably my favorite of your articles. It’s personal and we can all relate. It’s practical and whimsical. It connects research with Tal Ben Shahar’s idea of the “freedom to be human”. Thank you for this 🙂

Marie-Josee Shaar 4 April 2014 - 8:54 am

I’m with Senia and Sherri – TEDx material for sure!

Kathryn Britton 4 April 2014 - 9:16 am

Thank you for the flowers, Senia, Christine, Angus, Scott, and Sherry. This article has been bubbling around in my mind for quite awhile, so I’m glad it make it on to the page in an effective way.

Scott, thanks for the Ibarra reference – How to stay stuck in the wrong career. I’ll read it with interest.

I like your point, Sherri, “Freedom to be human.” If we were all alike, psychology would be easy, no? But how dull… This train of thought always brings me back to humility. Nobody has all the answers even for himself/herself — much less all of mankind.

So what would your next experiment be, Angus?

Senia, Hadn’t thought of a TED-X talk. Interesting idea.

Margaret Greenberg 4 April 2014 - 12:04 pm

Love this article Kathryn…especially how you bring yourself & your coaching experience to the application. I’m adding “Think of it as an experiment” to my perspective coaching – thank you!


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