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How to find meaningful work – Day 4

Design a bulletproof experiment that will test your favorite work-life scenario without any risks.

Ondrej Markus
Ondrej Markus
9 min read
How to find meaningful work – Day 4

(This is the final part of a four-part guide to meaningful work. If you've stumbled here by accident, go to the first part.)


Day 4: Experiment design

Don't commit, experiment first

With your go-to scenario in front of you, you might feel like making some epic changes – quit your job, end business partnerships, or other life-changing actions. But, please, hold your horses. We want to be smart about this and don't rush anything. To do that, we are going to do some science.

Our strategy is to keep our options open. We don't want to commit too early or to rush any dramatic changes, which we might later regret. We'll look at our scenario as a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is an assumption we need to test before we can confirm it's true. We'll design an experiment with phases of gradually increasing commitment to planning the transition from our current work-life to the new one, but responsibly and with minimum risk of burning ourselves by being impatient.

We are cautious because often we want things for the wrong reasons. We think they'll bring us what we want, but they don't. Sometimes, it all works out differently than we thought it would, and we end up disappointed, or even trapped in a situation we don't like. People are bad at making predictions.

The objective of this experiment method is to find out if our scenario fulfills what we expect. And we do it by applying the bare minimum of changes needed, and we constantly observe our feelings and experiences, ready to adjust our plans as needed. We will test our assumptions before we commit ourselves full-time. We'll design three phases of gradually increasing commitment.

Step 8: Design an experiment

Phase 1: Testing the waters

In the first phase, we stay away from any big changes to our current work-life. We are the kid who was let to run around the toyshop and now we want the shiniest lego set we found, and we want it now.

But, as the adult we are (ehm), we want to know, if we should commit to this one, or if we would get annoyed with it after just a couple of days, and we wanted it only because it was something new.

We need to test our new work-life for potential holes we didn't see from a distance, but which will be quickly obvious after we step into it.

What can you do to test your new work-life with 30 minutes a day? (In your free time.)

Use worksheet: Step 8: Design phases of commitment

The idea behind this is, that there must be something you can do, or are partly already doing, that is at the core of what you want to do.

For example, if you'd like to write a book, what could you do to do it for 30 minutes a day? And if you aren't already writing, not even for 30 minutes a day, how sure are you that you would enjoy doing it for more than that? The easiest way to know is to try it and observe yourself.

A lot of the things we enjoy, we are already doing as hobbies. And some of what is a hobby should stay a hobby because there is a difference between doing something just when we are in a mood for it, and doing it even if we don't feel like doing it. That's where hobby becomes work. And that's not a bad thing, it's just different.

How can we tell which one is it? We can't, until we move it into the next phase of commitment, and observe if it sticks.

Phase 2: Water under knees

If it feels good in your free time, you enjoy it and want more, it's a good time to move to the second phase. Here you are ready to make the first real changes to your current lifestyle and create more space for the work-life you want to pursue.

Ideally, we don't want to jump to the full-time phase just yet but stand in the water for a little while longer to get to know the real taste of it.

What can you do to test your new work-life with 3 hours a day? (Part-time)

For example, if you are trying to start your own business, it might be a smart move to negotiate a part-time deal in your current job and work on your project in the other half of your work-day. It's less stressful because you don't need to worry about income stability right from the start. Also, you keep the option to go back to your job, if the whole entrepreneur hypothesis doesn't deliver what you've expected.

I'm aware that part-time commitment isn't a regular option in most jobs. You might need to get creative with it. If you have a good relationship with your boss, maybe just show your cards – tell her what you have in mind and if she sees any possibilities this could work well for both sides. If you fear that talking about lowering your commitment would mark you as a heretical traitor in your workplace, it might not be worth the risk, and your go-to move is to do the extra work on weekends and evenings. It's another way to test your commitment.

Phase 3: Jump

This is the real thing. To know what it's like, you have to eventually try it in the full-time mode.

What can you do to test your new work-life full-time?

Security alert

Right now, your practical side is probably skeptical about this whole situation. "Sure, it sounds nice in theory, but who's going to pay for the house you want to start saving for? Yeah, and remember those two little humans that depend on your income?"

There are going to be conflicts of your different longings. On one hand, you want to pursue your work as an actor full-time, but on the other hand, the bills won't pay themselves and there isn't enough money on your account even for your next rent.

Maybe at this point, you'll be forced to revisit your longings and review your priorities. Your financial stability might be more important than you first thought, and you can almost taste the fear in your mouth when you think about the earthquake this change of work-life would create. It's fine. We should view our prioritized longings as an ever-changing draft, and never hesitate to adjust them with the newest information we observed about ourselves.

To keep being responsible about this, and to calm down the security freak in our head, we will do what I call a bulletproofing.

Step 9: Bulletproof your experiment

To strengthen our plans, we are going to visualize the first phase with a life-changing impact on our longings. It's probably the phase 2 or 3, depending on how flexible is your current lifestyle. Phase 1 is usually manageable without changes that would significantly affect your income and relationship stability. If that's the case, skip it.

We bulletproof the experiment by taking the phase through four visualizations, where we focus on the practical aspects of our life. For most of us, it's going to be money, because we use work to make a living, and our landlord isn't going to be sympathetic to our journey for meaning if we don't send him the next month's rent on time.

The bulletproofing method encourages us to visualize what will happen more realistically by going through scenarios from most likely, to worst case, to unicorns and rainbows.

The goal of this exercise is to make sure we know about things that could go wrong and think about how we would fix them if necessary. All of us tend to be more optimistic or pessimistic than we should be. So we want to calibrate ourselves to a realistic mindset. Not to underestimate the impact of our choices, but also not to be unreasonable and scared of easily fixable changes that probably won't even happen.

By doing this, we get a better idea about how to responsibly handle our finances during the experiment, and we are more certain our mental health and relationships will also survive. One by one, write down what you visualize in as much detail as you need to calm down your pragmatic self.

Use worksheet: Step 9: Bulletproof experiment

Plan A = What do you expect to happen?

Plan B = If it doesn't work like expected, what would you do?

Plan Z = How would you fix the situation, if everything went wrong?

Plan A+ = What would happen, if everything worked 10 times better than you expected?

This was a whole bunch of thinking, planning, and overall axe sharpening. But no change will actually happen if we don't act on it.

Step 10: Action plan

Walk over the Maybe Bridge

The test comes, when we made our plans and are ready for action. It's too easy to persuade ourselves to keep planning and researching because we don't feel ready. But we might never feel ready. We might think we can't do it because there is no evidence of us ever accomplishing anything like it, so why bother trying? At the same time, there won't ever be any evidence if we don't act first. The only way to get out of this depressive circle is to leap out of the downward spiral and onto the upward spiral. We have to walk over the Maybe bridge.

The Maybe bridge is a mindset, in which you can create a proof of your abilities for yourself – evidence of your competence – before you feel ready. And yes, from time to time, you won't meet your expectations of success, but it doesn't matter. Once you discover the Maybe bridge and learn to use it, you can do anything.

We'll apply our newly gain bias for action right away.

Use worksheet: Step 10: Action plan

Questions

Start by listing questions you need to answer to move forward in the first phase of the experiment.

What do you need to answer to test your new work-life?

Sources

Secondly, think about sources you can research (websites, books), or talk to (people, who live the work-life we want to have).

Where can you find answers to your questions?

Actions

Thirdly, make an action plan of specific tasks you know you need to do to start phase 1.

What are you going to do?

After you finish, set up a 5-minute timer, and start right now. Just for 5 minutes. Do one thing.

Start before you feel ready

Your priority now is to prove to yourself you can begin your walk over the Maybe bridge and reach the work-life you want. Start now.


Big thanks to Linette and Dan for reading long drafts of this.

If you have any thoughts about the guide, want to share your insights, or tell me which picture you liked the most, write me an email.


Summary

  • What do you want? If you can answer it specifically and genuinely, everything else follows naturaly.
  • Focus more on activities than outcomes
  • Joy is the best fuel for learning
  • Work to live, don't live to work
  • Don't commit, experiment first. Keep your options open.
  • There is no one perfect work you were born to do. There is more than one work-life that can fulfill your longings.
  • Don't quit your current job until you test your assumptions. We are horrible at predictions.
  • Embrace bias for action to create your own evidence of competence. Act before you feel ready.

Sources

And where to go next.

Wait But Why

Tim Urban's blog post is what inspired me to dig deeper into this topic and write about it. The Day 1 chapter is heavily based on his article. If you are looking for a place to continue, I can't recommend this enough. Also, his illustrations are hilarious.

Seth's blog

Seth Godin publishes blog posts every day. His thinking on how to approach work-life and how it fits into our culture resonates with me strongly. Here are some of his best blog posts related to work.

The Book of Life

Collection of thoughts by the School of Life. Their gentle view on work and search for meaning in life encourages me to keep learning.

80 000 hours

If you want your work to be useful you shouldn't miss 80k hours. They offer science-backed guidance about what careers you should pick if you want to have the biggest positive impact possible.

Other sources

Ondrej Markus

I write about life design.