On Experimentation as a Way of Life
I ate some mushrooms 15 minutes ago. Yes, the magic kind. No, I’m not tripping, nor will I be an hour from now. I took 0.16 grams of psilocybe cubensis, which is around 1/10th to 1/20th the size of a standard dose—a microdose. Microdosing entails taking a sub-perceptual dose of a psychedelic for subtly enhanced mood, energy, creativity, etc. It's more like a cup of coffee than an acid trip.
Microdosing shrooms is my latest self-experiment. Other experiments have seen me spitting in a cup every 5 minutes for an hour and a half straight, inviting a woman to whisper in my ear for 20 minutes each night over a two week period in February, and dumping Greek yogurt all over my kitchen floor.
Yes, I did frame those in the most bizarre way possible to make them sound like the zany experiments of a mad scientist, but they were still rather out there to begin with. So what compels me to conduct such experiments? I use self-experiments as a way to better myself, my relationships, and my life as a whole.
Life is short and I’m going to die. You probably will too. Rather than using this fact as an excuse to brood, though, I hear it as an exhortation to soak up every last drop this world has to offer and squeeze it back out with all the gusto I can muster. I’ll surely come up short, and that’s okay. I unabashedly want it all, know I can’t have it, and carry on striving for it nonetheless. For me, this means becoming the most loving, joyful, intelligent, creative, productive, etc. version of myself that I can be. Experiments are one vehicle through which I take up this task.
Developing into the apotheosis of my possible selves begins with cultivating a healthy body and mind, as many of my experiments are geared toward.These have ranged from deepening my meditation with the help of nicotine to dosing vitamin D in the hopes of combatting wintertime lethargy to going gluten-free for whatever reason people go gluten-free. Through experiments, I’m able to test whether health hacks hold true for me as an individual in a systematic yet flexible fashion. By conducting interventions in an organized manner, controlling for confounding variables, and diligently recording my results, I gain a clearer picture of what’s happening to me than if I were to simply try something and fleetingly reflect on its effects after however long.
But my self-experimentation doesn’t end with classic Quantified Self-style efforts to optimize body and mind, and, quite honestly, my experiments don’t usually attain this level of methodological rigor. Because while I love saying “optimize” just as much as everyone else in tech, these experiments are about much more than optimization in a rigid mechanical sense. In fact, I apply experiments far beyond the scope of health and productivity, and I use experimentation as a mental model more so than a mere methodology.
The essence of this “experimentalism,” as I call it, is nebulous. I have no strict definition for it, but I also don’t use it arbitrarily. It’s more specific than “trying new shit” but less so than “running randomized, placebo-controlled trials.” It can roughly be described as making a deliberate effort to try things out, alongside some combination of the following:
Committing to trying the new thing on an organized schedule (e.g. every other weekday) for a predetermined period of time or number of trials, in order to give it a fair shot.
Paying attention to and recording the impact of the new thing. This can be done with varying degrees of diligence.
Controlling for confounding variables where possible, even if this just means taking mental note of them.
Maintaining an open mind and a genuine sense of curiosity in tandem with a problem-solving mindset.
Experimentalism, then, is a means of exploring and experiencing life in a spirit of wonder and play, organized in a framework that more effectively channels this spirit toward learning, growth, and problem-solving.
This way of seeing and being in the world has done me good, and I posit that it’ll do the same for you given the chance. So how do I use it, and how might you? As mentioned above, one clear use case is determining which health and productivity solutions work for you by trying them out. It’s worth unpacking some of the ways experiments can work toward this end.
For one, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sea of information available on the internet from digital denizens prescribing various health hacks and productivity pro tips. Every Reddit thread and Healthline article offers up a dozen different solutions, rendering paralysis by paradox of choice a real threat. An experimental approach can make this problem manageable by providing a structure in which to embed and evaluate these solutions systematically. By formulating a particular intervention as an experiment, it becomes a tractable, time-bound thing that can then be completed and compared against other interventions thanks to the data you’ve recorded.
This process confers the benefit of making health solutions personalized. No piece of advice is one-size-fits-all. It’s worth remembering that even the robust effect size of an intervention studied in a rock-solid paper from a killer journal is only an average. Humans are wonderfully complex, and while a given intervention may work miracles for some, for others it may be disappointingly ineffective. Findings from the medical establishment are a great starting point, but only trying things out for yourself will reveal what actually works for you. Doing so in an organized manner will make the discovery process that much more effective.
Experimentalism can also be put to good use in the process of building habits, whether those habits be health and productivity-related or otherwise. Let’s indulge ourselves with an example. Say you’ve heard fabulous things about the value of a regular meditation practice (which you probably have if you’ve ever spoken with me). You may feel you should probably be meditating—to reduce stress, boost your mental health, all that good stuff. So you set a New Year’s resolution to meditate four times each week, even though you’ve meditated only four times in your life. Of course, this is bound to fail. Framing the resolution instead as an experiment—e.g. meditating four times per week for two weeks, after which you’ll reevaluate—offers a more sensible path. In doing so, you’ve given yourself the opportunity to learn and the freedom to adjust your behavior according to those learnings. You may realize in this time that meditation isn’t really for you and can drop it with a clean conscience. This is a much better outcome than the alternatives, had you gone the resolution route:
Bailing on what was supposed to be a year-long commitment, thereby undermining your trust in your own ability to stick to things.
Keeping your resolution and slogging through day after day of meditation, wondering what defect of personal constitution is preventing you from reaping its benefits.
Not only can experimenting save you this trouble, it’s also just a more fun way to build habits. The combination of an end date and the tracking of outcomes creates a goal and a series of tight feedback loops that together add a gamification-like element to the experience. Approached experimentally, personal growth feels like less of a chore.
I picked meditation here because I wanted an excuse to talk about it, but this applies equally to interpersonal habits (saying “I love you” more often), financial habits (10-day experiment, no Uber Eats 😱 ), etc.
I’ve also used experimentation to inform decisions both big and small. For big decisions, running an experiment can help to mitigate risk. I’ve deployed this tactic when deciding where to live. Whether it be a country, city, neighborhood, or building, choosing where (or with whom) to live is a big deal, and the more you think about it the more daunting it can become. Yet no amount of analysis will show you what it’s actually like to live there. To quell some of my concerns in making these decisions, over the past few years I’ve used short-term sublets to take different cities, neighborhoods, and buildings for test runs. Usually these are on the scale of a couple months so I can really get a feel for the place before making a longer-term commitment. This strategy has proven illuminating, and I’m happy to report that I’m now engaged in a long-term, committed lease.
On the far less consequential end of the decision spectrum, I bought a candle recently. This may sound trivial, but for a frugal SOB like myself, this doesn’t come so easily. When something is a part of your identity, you avoid decisions that are incongruent with that identity, even if they don’t endanger it in any significant way. I subscribe to the identity narrative that I’m frugal, so I make frugal decisions, often past the point of reason. Experimentation can liberate you from your narratives by framing acts of transgression against them as isolated, deliberate incidents. You’re gathering data, trying something new. Just like it’s easy to laugh at your “drunk self” because the intoxication enables you to pin the behavior on something other than your own identity, experimentation can free you to try things that you otherwise wouldn’t normally. Over time, you can then do these things without jeopardizing the coherence of your self image because you increasingly realize that the core of your personhood comprises much more (or less) than a single thought, feeling, or action.
All that is to say that I indulged my candle-purchasing inclinations as an experiment. I reasoned that it was a small, one-time purchase that could yield sizable upside by contributing a certain je ne sais quoi to the atmosphere in my apartment. As it turns out, it did, and I’m now a bonafide candle guy—the aroma of “woodfire” wafts through my apartment even now as I type this, leaving a cozy holiday ambience in its wake.Better yet, my candle purchase has literally fueled my latest experiment: killing the lights and living by candlelight for the two hours before bed, in the hopes of curtailing the sleep-onset insomnia that has plagued me on and off for years. This solution has shown striking promise thus far.
Holding a significance somewhere between that of buying candles and deciding where to live, my writing itself is an experiment. In fact, framing it as such is the only way I was able to get myself to write this blog post. I told myself that I’ll write just this one and see how it goes. If I hate it, I’m free to stop. But I must write at least this one, per the experiment’s parameters.
Further, I probably couldn’t have written this piece without microdosing—another experiment—which on this disarmingly beautiful December day has endowed me with the creative energies needed to rouse me for the hard and important work that is writing. The opportunity to dabble in endeavors with asymmetric upside is yet another reason to embrace the experimental mindset, and the potential upside of writing, and writing online, is too high for me to neglect. It’s experiments all the way down.
And so it is that I write—thanks to experimentalism, the asymmetric bets that it makes easier, and everything else that it’s good for. For powering the building of new habits and skills. For organizing, expediting, and personalizing learning. For lowering the stakes, fostering flexibility, and encouraging exploration. For the ability to hold identities more loosely. For de-risking some of life’s biggest decisions. For de-risking some of life’s smallest decisions that maybe aren’t so small after all. For empowering me to write this one thing and, pending results, possibly more. We’ll just have to wait and see.
I encourage you to go and see for yourself, whatever that might mean for you, and to share your findings when the time comes.
Postscript: I had much more to say in this post—about how experiments pertain to love, philosophy, policy, mood disorders, startups, and organic bananas, among other things—but as I wrote those last few paragraphs I felt they wrapped a bow on this too neatly to be denied. To preserve that pristine bow, it seems I’ll have to save all that for another day. On that note, and until then, merry Christmas!
I’ll explain if you ask. Until then, let me cherish the thought of the bewilderment that might ensue from reading that sentence.
IDRGAF about hanging prepositions, sue me.
I jest. There are plenty of good reasons for going gluten-free. In my case I just wanted to see what would happen and found little effect.
Yes, I put “etc.” there because I was running out of ideas for categories of habits.
As far as they go I'm happy in mine, but leases are actually pretty fucked. The whole leasing system is rather fraught and ripe for disruption. COVID and the consequent rise of remote work appear to have sparked the beginnings of change.
Just found out that “ambience” and “ambiance” are both correct spellings. Cool.
No, I’m not referencing that John Green novel, damnit. Go follow the link if you haven’t yet.
Seriously! Any experiments, new habits, health hacks, or theorizing thereof that you’re getting into, I’d love to chat about.