Rapid prototyping of life

Posted: March 27, 2006 at 8:47 am in people

As I mentioned in the last post, I spent a few hours talking with my coworker and her friend after seeing a show together on Friday evening. Her friend is also a software developer, and is, like me, a big fan of rapid prototyping (as I mention in my reviews of books like Experimentation Matters and Serious Play). I can’t remember how it came up, but at some point during the evening, he mentioned the idea of rapid prototyping one’s life. The concept really struck me, so I’m going to spend some time fleshing it out.

I think rapid prototyping is appropriate in most cases in software development, but there are some cases in which it excels. The qualities which point towards rapid prototyping are where the final goal is poorly defined, where only experimentation, not theory, will help define that final goal, and where there are no irreversible consequences for trying something. For instance, in the cases where I was developing software for a new scientific instrument, it was totally unclear exactly how the software should work because nobody had ever worked with this instrument before. We couldn’t just go see what our competitors did and copy them. There was a process of continuous refinement – I gave the scientists something crude, they started using it in certain ways, I shaped the next version of the software to streamline those uses, etc. And this software was not mission critical – it wasn’t for a medical device, or a nuclear power plant – if it crashed, it was inconvenient but not a disaster. So that was a case where rapid prototyping was definitely the right thing to do.

What about life? For most people, the goal of one’s life is extremely poorly defined. And, in most cases, we have to try something to figure out whether we like it and whether it works for us. And very little in life is irreversible. So it seems like life would be a good candidate for rapid prototyping.

I’m starting to realize this. Part of the reason for my New York adventure was realizing that I was somewhat dissatisfied with how things were going in my life, and deciding to shake things up a bunch. Live in a big city for a while. Work at several different roles in a company on my way towards a management position. See if I can meet some new people, make some new friends, try some new things. Maybe I’ll take up martial arts, something I’ve talked about for a while. Go to the theater more. Lots of options. And none of this is irreversible. I may find out I hate it, and move back to the Bay Area. But I would have tried things and I would have learned from the experience.

Trying new things and learning from the experience – sounds like rapid prototyping. Well, prototyping, at least. It hasn’t been so rapid for me. It took me about ten years to give up on being a physicist, and then I spent eight years as a programmer. At that rate, I guess I’ll be ready for my next career in six years. In the realm of sports, I spent six or seven years as a tennis player in middle and high school, six years playing volleyball in college and grad school, and two or three years playing ultimate frisbee, so I have a few more years of ultimate before it’s time for a change.

What this history demonstrates is that one of my faults is that I really hate being bad at things. So I tend to stick to doing stuff I’m already good at for longer than I should, instead of trying new things and having to start over. I need to just get over myself and try new things, revel in failure and see it as an opportunity to get better. Whenever I try it, I do tend to enjoy it – it’s fun being on the steep part of the learning curve again. I need to take up my friend Brad’s mantra to always do the thing that scares me the most. But it’s hard.

Anyway. It’s a neat concept, rapid prototyping of life. I need to get the iteration time down, but having that as a framework could be valuable for evaluating various opportunities: what can I learn from the experience? Will the experience help me refine what I believe or like? Will the experience help me to choose what to do next?

9 Responses to “Rapid prototyping of life”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Weekend of theater || March || 2006 Says:

    [...] Rapid prototyping of life [...]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The irreversibility of life || March || 2006 Says:

    [...] Rapid prototyping of life [...]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Getting to Yes, by Fisher and Ury || May || 2006 Says:

    [...] Rapid prototyping of life [...]

  4. Simon de Haast Says:

    Hey Eric, just came across this posting at cph127: The rise of beta – a new mindset?.

    Some gems:

    Together with good friends I’ve started to write on a beta-manifesto…
    1. being in beta is a natural state of life. Everything aroundus is either evolving or dying…


  5. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Option-full technology || June || 2006 Says:

    [...] I’ve made the connection between rapid prototyping and life before, but I think it makes even more sense in this context of leveraging other people. Somewhat ironically, the older I get, the more benefit I get from interacting with people, because I am getting better at relating their experience to mine. You would think it should work the other way around, that I would gain the most from other people when I was young and inexperienced, but I was not then in a position to understand the wisdom they were trying to impart. I’m still not as good about paying attention to other people as I would like to be, but I like the idea of relating it to rapid prototyping and feedback and the design philosophy of leaving options open. [...]

  6. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Design Choices || January || 2007 Says:

    [...] I think the answer is to pick something, anything, and just get started. You won’t know until later whether it was the right choice, but since you have no basis for making a choice, all choices are valid, so long as you continue to evaluate and evolve based on the results. [...]

  7. Wes Says:

    I maintain that your self-image as someone who hates being bad at things is inconsistent with my observations. You are knowledgeable is many areas, which means you had to learn about these various areas in which you at one time knew nothing. Therefore, you passed through a “bad at it” phase somehow. And apparently you’ve done this again and again and again.

  8. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Iteration and feedback in management || June || 2007 Says:

    [...] recent post on fixing the real problem reminded me of an earlier post on the rapid prototyping of life, where I said “The qualities which point towards rapid prototyping are where the final goal [...]

  9. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley || May || 2008 Says:

    [...] a big fan of this process, as might be expected since I advocate rapid prototyping whenever possible. The knowledge gained by letting users interact with prototypes lets you hone in [...]

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