Lesson 4: Life Is An Experiment, Not a Masterpiece

"Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."  --Ralph Waldo Emerson

So many people worry when it comes to decisions. "What if I make the wrong one," they say? And when they say the wrong one, they really mean the one that makes them fail, or not succeed, which is just about the same. But to think in terms of wrong decisions is to be caught up in masterpiece thinking, the idea that there is a perfect life out there for you, waiting for you to live it. This type of thinking cripples you, and holds you back from your potential. Below I show how your best path forward is to view life not as a masterpiece, but as an experiment. This switch allows you to embrace the ups and downs of life as you figure things out.

Masterpiece Mindset: Life As a Performance

In the masterpiece mindset, you approach life like a performer on a stage. The unspoken goal of this mindset is to impress the audience, and to get them to think that you have created a masterpiece of a life. In this mindset, life is a way to prove to our audience, our family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances that we have a desirable life, a perfect story where we always perform well enough to earn the audience's applause.

If you've ever been in a live stage performance, you know the pressure to be perfect. You need to remember every line, follow every cue, and never miss a beat in order for the performance to turn out well. If even one performer misses a line, it can ruin an entire scene. While this pressure and precision works for a scripted show, it breaks down when you treat your life in the same way. The masterpiece mindset can create positive results at first, but it eventually breaks down since life never follows your script. 

Masterpiece Mindset: Life should be perfect, so if you can't do something perfectly, don't try at all

When we operate out of a masterpiece mindset we want a perfect life that goes according to our scripts. But life doesn't work like that, it never follows our scripts, but is always changing. So when the inevitable setbacks and failures of life throws your script out the window, you feel like a failure, having ruined the show and disappointed the audience. When you hit hurdles and roadblocks under this performance mindset, you begin to ask the question, "Do I even belong on stage?" So you do one of two things: either you retreat off stage and never get back on, afraid of failing again. Or you reluctantly come back on stage, but only perform in the areas that you can be perfect in.

In a desire to have this masterpiece life, most people respond to failure in the second way. This causes them to develop two personas: a public, onstage persona and a private, offstage one. When you're onstage, you're in full performance mode, working hard to ensure that you always say the right thing, look the right way, and know exactly what you are doing. You’re wiling to be on stage, but only in performance mode, where you can hide your weaknesses while maximizing your strengths. But performing like this is exhausting, so you have your offstage persona, where you can relax and be yourself.

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Since in the masterpiece mindset your value comes from your current performance, you'll only do the things you're naturally good at. And if you don’t experience immediate success doing something, you conclude that it’s not for you, leaving before other people can see you fail. When you are trying to put on a masterpiece performance you only get one shot. And there is no room for mistakes. Here are some characteristics of the performance mindset: Your value is based on your current performance. Here are some simple examples of the masterpiece mindset.

  • I wasted two years of my life in a grad program that I can't even get a job in.
  • The last time I tried to sing everyone was so much better than me...now I remember why I avoid singing.
  • Sorry, I can't cook...I always burn whatever I make.
  • I was so embarrassed when I got that question wrong...next week I'm not going to say anything.
  • When you draw in front of people you always say, "Sorry, I'm such a bad artist."
  • You get tense when you sense you that you may receive criticism or unpleasant feedback.
  • When you're on a date, you change to become someone you think the other person would like.

The performance mindset can be devastating, since it puts so much pressure on people to perform their way into a perfect life. Then when life doesn't go as planned, they assume they've failed, which causes them to shrink back from their gifts for fear of being seen as imperfect. Oftentimes it only take a single piece of discouragement or one bad experience for performance mindset people to disqualify themselves from being on stage forever. 

Experiment Mindset: Life As a Series of Experiments

In contrast to the exacting standards of the performance mindset, the experiment mindset has a lower, but more realistic, view of life. The experiment mindset is is built off of the realization that perfection is unattainable, but over time you can learn enough to be successful. Unlike in the first mindset, here failure and shortcomings are seen as part of the process of life, even though they’re not desired. So rather than denying the existence of failure, the experiment mindset gives you the perspective to work through setbacks as they appear in life.

The experiment mindset doesn’t see life like a performer and a stage, but rather as a scientist and experiment. In the scientific method, the scientist has a question that he seeks to answer with a hypothesis, his guess at an answer. But unlike the performer on stage, he never enters an experiment expecting to get the perfect answer on the first try. Instead, he recognizes that it'll take lots of trial and error to figure out the answer. So the scientist comes to the lab every day expecting to make lots of mistakes and false turns, but perseveres through the failure because he trusts that every experiment will bring him a little closer to his answer.

Experiment Mindset: Life is a series of experiments, so when mistakes happen, learn from them

The scientist sets out to make a little progress every day. For the scientist, the only way to fail is not to get a wrong answer, but to give up searching for an answer. Scientists don't expect to produce a masterpiece immediately, knowing that it will take years and years of hard work to make any important discoveries. Only years after he started, having failed time after time, will the scientist solve the problem.

 

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Like the scientist, you are faced with big, complicated questions about life. What kind of work should I do? What is God calling me to do? Where should I use my gifts? Whom should I marry? It’s rare to be able to solve these questions with the first answer you come up with. But with the experiment approach, a no to any of your potential answers doesn’t have to stop you. Instead, you are one step closer to the right answer by not knowing which other answers are wrong. Often the best way to find the right answer is to cross out all of the other ones. 

And when you approach life as an experiment, you now have the flexibility to not be perfect. You can try new things and to take risks, since your goal isn’t to show that you haven’t it all together, but rather to learn about how God has made you. Since most people are caught up in proving to others in their 20s that they are on the way to a masterpiece kind of life, they can’t stop and experiment with different jobs, careers, or locations, to see which is the best fit for them. The experiment mindset allows you to take a job to see if it’s a good fit. You can try something for six months or a year, or even on the side, and if it’s not a good fit, you can do something else, but now you know that that isn’t an option you want to pursue.

It took me six major career experiments, and countless minor ones, before I had gathered enough information to understand what kind of work God wants me to do. So don't give up if you are at your first job and feel like you'll never find your niche. I spent a lot of that time in the masterpiece mindset in my twenties, wondering why I kept failing and felling ashamed of it. I thought I was making wrong turns, but now I see how every stop taught me more about my gifts and interests, which helped me narrow my choices down until I found the answer that fit me best.

Here are some simple ways to help you start thinking in more of an experiment mindset:

  • You don’t want to fail or go the wrong way, but it’s okay as long as you are learning 
  • You focus on learning, not performing
  • You focus on perseverance, not perfection
  • You prioritize small, nimble experiments over long, expensive productions
  • You have unlimited opportunities to find the right answer
  • When things go wrong, don’t blame others. Instead, focus on what you can learn
  • Quit worrying about your weaknesses and focus on using your strengths.

Why This Is So Important:

When I was younger, I thought you answered the big questions of life by finding the right answer. Now, I realize it usually happens exactly the opposite way, you find the answer to your question by eliminating all of the wrong ones. So if we want to figure out the answers to the questions of our lives, we don't need more information, opportunities, or talents. Instead, what we really need is perseverance, to keep going through the process of experimenting with life and learning how God has made us.

Lesson 3: The Opposite of Uncertainty Isn't Certainty, But Faith

Lesson 2: You Can't Have It All