[This post is the eleventh in a multi-part series called Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning is Wrong. To be in touch about it, you can always reach me at [email protected] or visit me at https://ericmaisel.com/. Please enjoy the series!]
If you try and run an experiment, and whether or not the experiment succeeds in proving your hypothesis or providing you with a brilliant result, you’re likely to have the feeling of meaning percolate up simply because you tried.
There is something about experimenting that provokes the feeling of meaning in everyone from a celebrity chef to a molecular biologist, from a fashion designer to a budding architect. Because so many of our species experience experimentation as a source of that special feeling, experimentation is one of our golden meaning opportunities
Consider two scenarios. In the first, you paint the sort of painting you know how to paint. You end up with a result that you like and a result that your collectors like. But won’t you feel just a little hollow, dissatisfied and down? Quite likely. Even if we do excellent work, we can still bore ourselves and not feel as if we are manifesting our true potential.
If, on the other hand, you devote every Saturday to some wild painting experiments, and even if they don’t pan out and even if they cost you some expensive paint and canvas, isn’t the feeling of meaning likely to arise in you as you break free of your usual constraints, imagery, and way of doing things? If you’ve been craving that feeling of meaning, and maybe wondering why it feels so elusive given that you’ve been painting well and selling well, isn’t running an experiment of this sort just the ticket?
Many of us curtail our natural desire to experiment as, during our formative years, we are instructed in school, at home, and among our peers to get things right and to not make mistakes. We are supposed to provide the right answers, not experiment. We are supposed to follow our cultural and familial rules, not experiment. Often, we are punished for experimenting; and so, we lose our taste for experimenting.
However, experimenting is a crucial feature of creativity, growth and learning. We can’t learn a new art medium unless we experiment with it. We can’t learn how to run our business except through trial-and-error experimentation. We can’t pursue a line of research unless we are willing to entertain an idea, turn it over, and see if it works—that is, unless we are willing to experiment with ideas.
We can’t know whether it’s better to travel down this path or that path unless we experiment with one path or the other. Yes, maybe we can predict the outcome; and maybe we should try to look into our crystal ball and see the future, so as to avoid dead ends and pratfalls that we could see coming if we looked. But at the same time, looking into that crystal ball isn’t the same as living. Ultimately, we must run life experiments: when we marry, when we have children, when we choose a career, when we drop this and pick up that.
If you’ve lost your taste for experimentation, you might want to see if you can reacquire it by choosing experimentation as one of your golden meaning opportunities. Pick a beautiful experiment—a small one or a large one, one near to your heart, one that piques your curiosity, or one that you think might serve your ends—and leap in. Remember that it’s an experiment! As much as you may have a hunch about the outcome, you can’t really know the results beforehand. That’s why it’s called an experiment!
The special quality of a genuine experiment is that you really don’t know what the outcome will be. Many experiments in the sciences and the social sciences aren’t genuine experiments, because the researchers need a certain outcome—to justify their funding, for prestige reasons, and so on—and, consciously or unconsciously, manipulate the experiment so as to get the outcome they want and need. How meaningful is such pseudo-experimenting going to feel? Aren’t genuine experiments much more likely to produce that certain feeling than rigged ones?
Here’s how a genuine experiment looks. A singer/songwriter client of mine wondered if he could write a musical. He could have just wondered—or he could have done what he did do, experiment turning his ideas into songs and a script. Creating that first song felt wonderfully meaningful. Its existence then prompted the next experiment, to see if the second song he had in mind worked with the first one. That experiment injected another dose of meaning into his life, motivating him to continue creating.
Soon—really amazingly quickly—he had the full score and script done. Within months he got a grant to hire singers and actors to put together a staged reading of his musical. Do you have any doubt that entering that room for the first time, that roomful of eager actor/singers and musicians, wasn’t one of the huge meaning highlights of his life? Doesn’t it go without saying that this meaning opportunity, experimenting to see if he could create a musical, paid off beautifully?
Even if the experiment you run doesn’t end in the result you want—my client’s musical still hasn’t made its way to Broadway—running the experiment is itself the meaning opportunity. Let go of needing a successful outcome, don’t worry whether you will get it right or wrong, and rejoice in the process and the experience. If you are feeling that life isn’t meaningful or meaningful enough, put on your thinking cap and ask yourself, “What juicy experiment might I run?” Surprise yourself—and then go for it.
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
READ PART TWO: On Craving the Feeling of Meaning
READ PART THREE: Why ‘Is Life Meaningful?’ Is the Wrong Question
READ PART FOUR: Meaning Has Its Reasons
READ PART FIVE: The Cost of Meaning
READ PART SIX: Meaning Has Its Rhythms
READ PART SEVEN: Robbed of Purpose
READ PART EIGHT: Meaning as Nature’s Motivational Tool
READ PART NINE: Your Golden Meaning Opportunities
READ PART TEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Stewardship
This Post is republished on Medium.
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