Try not. Run an experiment instead.

Lately I’ve been struggling with Yoda’s immortal words, “Do or do not … there is no try.” So many startup/tech writers have referenced that quote: Jason Baptiste37 Signals … half the people on twitter. Brad Feld even wears an uber-nerdy version of it on a t-shirt.

I think Yoda’s trying to tell me not to give myself permission to fail, but I don’t think I do that much. I have a bigger problem restricting myself only to activities where I know I’ll succeed. An aversion to risk aversion even led Seth Godin to question Yoda’s wisdom in Poke the Box. There is something about trying that’s important; it moves us forward.

Maybe Ash Maurya has figured out the riddle. After reading Running Lean and talking with Ash recently, I started to realize that everything Ash does is an experiment. He doesn’t say, “I’m trying to start xyz” – instead he says, “I’m running an experiment to find out something about xyz.” In his businesses, in his blog, in his book, even talking on the phone, Ash really appears to think and act that way. Oh … and Ash channels Yoda, too.

This is changing the way I think about change. An experiment is not a “try” – it’s a “do.” Running an experiment is an affirmative action. The result may or may not be what I wanted or expected. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that I did it, that I ran the experiment and gathered information about the world as it really is.

I recently noticed that eating better makes me feel better. I could get caught up in thinking “I will try to eat better” (or even worse, “I should eat better”) … or I could just eat better, as Yoda would undoubtedly suggest. But “just do it” sometimes leads to a distracting battle of will with myself, so instead of testing my willpower, I’m looking at my diet as a long-running experiment. What happens when I eat a grapefruit as a midafternoon snack instead of chocolate? Does a single beer at night really affect the way I feel in the morning (dammit)? Drinking water instead of soda at lunch feels less like giving up something and more like “doing” when I think about it as an experiment.

How about my career? There are lots of things I want to do that I haven’t done. Write more. Present more. Create a “MicroISV” like Patrick McKenzie or Rob Walling. Have a big impact within Microsoft. All of these “goals” are too vague to act on. So I’m starting to ask, “What experiments can I make to move forward, to help me learn something about these points on the horizon I seem drawn to?”

Take writing – at the beginning of the year, I told myself I would (should) write every day. I have not. For a while, I thought it was merely a matter of will or time management, but I know that’s not it. It’s fear – fear of finding out that I’m not a good writer. Who cares? If what I write sucks, then nobody will read it. Simple as that. Nobody will be hurt in the process, and I will find out something. I may even get better.

I’m consistently reminded about a story I heard on NPR a few years ago about Quantity vs. Quality from the book Life is a Verb:

A college ceramics teacher decided to do an experiment with his two fall pottery classes. He told one class they would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced that quarter and their grade depended on the number of pots they threw — so the more the better! The second class was told their grade would be determined by the quality of their work and they only needed to produce one “perfect” pot.

Who did better work? The better quality pieces came from the class that was graded on quantity! As they were making all those pots, they couldn’t help but get better at it. They were doing, not thinking or trying. People are naturally curious. I suspect that each pot a student made became a little experiment in pot-making, whether they knew it or not.

I do a podcast with Bob Walsh. We just published our 103rd show. A hundred and three! And I still think it’s no good … thank goodness Bob keeps pushing us forward. If I did the show on my own, I probably would have 3 shows done. Every time we publish, all I can think about is what’s wrong with it or what needs to be better. Yet we have more than a thousand subscribers, and people I really respect tell me they listen to it and get value from it. Yes, there is still work to be done, but maybe it’s time to stop worrying about being a good podcaster and start looking at each show as an opportunity to run an experiment in podcasting. We can’t help but get better if we give our best, evaluate honestly, and keep doing it.

Isn’t play just a series of experiments? Kids don’t think about it, but they’re running experiments constantly. What happens when I poke this box … or when I stomp in this puddle? I’ve never considered myself a particularly playful person. Maybe being more experimental will induce some playfulness.

Heck, it even applies to romance. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend way back in college:

Bryan: Foley, how many times have you ever been slapped?
Me: I’ve never been slapped!
Bryan: Well, then you’re doing something wrong …

I never understood what he meant, but I think I’m beginning to. Turns out that women don’t generally like pigs, but they don’t usually like men to ask for a permission slip, either. A little experimentation with your partner or potential partner can take you a long way. Of course it can get you slapped, apparently, but the point is … you have to be willing to take some risks.

Tomorrow I’m running a dubious experiment. I’m going to find out what riding a time trial with zero training does to my body. It’s dubious because there is a large body of evidence from other riders pointing out what will likely happen. It would be a more interesting experiment to find out how training effects my personal performance. Instead of getting mad at myself for what I haven’t done yet, I’m just going to have some fun in the saddle and watch the experiment unfold.

As Yoda says, “Try not! Do or do not … there is no try.” When you find yourself merely trying, consider running an experiment instead.

8 thoughts on “Try not. Run an experiment instead.

  1. boesystems

    Patrick – if it helps at all, I really enjoy both your blog and the podcast. Though, as I’ve been running a small company for 15 years now, I mentally re-christen it as “The Small Business Podcast”. Like any show of this nature there are some I find more valuable than others, but I appreciate the thought and work that goes into it.

    And when your name goes bold in my RSS list, I know you’ll have written something thoughtful and worth reading. (Certainly not the case for a lot of other names on there.)

    Good luck with the “experimenting” – now I’m thinking of ways I can do something similar.


  2. robvs

    Great post. I can relate to just about every point that you make.

    I’d like to make a suggestion, if I may. Bryan says that you’re doing something wrong if you’ve “never been slapped.” I understand what he’s trying to say, but I think that it is a bad analogy.

    Never being slapped can come off as meaning that you should try harder to push some moral, legal, or selfish boundary. A better analogy may be something that a friend told me when I was learning to ski – “If you don’t fall, you’re not learning.”

    My friend was overstating it, of course, but his words have helped me get over something that used to paralyze me – the fear of going outside of my comfort zone because I might fail.

    1. Patrick Foley Post author

      Ooh – that’s a good one. Apparently, I learn a LOT while skiing …

      That reminds me … I had a friend in high school who taught me how to sail (come to think of it, she taught me how to ski, too). She said if you never tip your boat over, you never find your limit – but if you spend all day with your mast in the water, that’s not sailing, either. I always liked that analogy.

      Failure is another great topic for discussion and very related to this post. I have traditionally not dealt with failure well – it has had precisely the effect on me that you describe; it’s prevented me from going outside my comfort zone, and I’m trying to work past that. I think it’s important to set up situations where I can “fail safely,” and rethinking an activity as an experiment helps me with that.

      I agree that Bryan’s approach is not for me and might be anathema to many – but I mention it for a reason. I always just dismissed him as being a “wild and crazy guy”, but I’m learning that he had a spark of something that was very worthwhile … and very attractive to the ladies. He didn’t wait around for a lady to come up to him – he tried something. Sometimes he failed spectacularly, but I’m pretty sure he never did anything that harmed anyone.

      Sorry if this is too much information, but clearly, I go too far in the opposite direction, and it has hurt me and hurt my marriage. It’s not very masculine or attractive to wait around for my wife to initiate intimacy. I learned that while reading The Way of the Superior Man a few years ago, and sure enough … my wife seems to prefer more “doing” from me and less “thinking about doing” or worse “talking about doing.” Literally, my wife would greatly prefer I experiment with various ways of getting her in the mood (or just go for it) rather than trying to negotiate with her to figure out what she wants. I was amazingly clueless about this and still have a lot to learn, but it’s been really important to our relationship. Your situation could be totally different, of course.

      It’s hard to talk about relationships, romance, and sex, but they’re important topics. Obviously, I’m no expert, but I know some good questions. And I wanted to mention it at least a little bit, because it’s a great part of life to practice experimenting instead of trying.

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