Experiment – Don’t Assess

Posted by Jill Chivers in Attitudes and Habits

When you attempt to learn something new, or change a habit (either ridding yourself of a bad habit, or trying to institute a new good habit), the attitude you have makes all the difference in the world to how successful you’ll be, and what your experience will be like as you travel this new path.

One of my favourite learning attitudes was something I learned when I worked full-time as a corporate facilitator.  It’s a wonderful quote that says:

Quotation-MarksThe biggest obstacle to learning something new is the belief that you already know it.


This quote is attributed to the Zen teachings and philosophy, and I believe it to be true.

It’s something that I encourage new members of My Year Without Clothes Shopping (our premier program) to do.  When you’re starting a wonderful new journey, it’s important to set yourself up to succeed right from the beginning.

And attitude makes a monumental difference.

This quote is very much along the same lines as the story of the student who visits his master.  As they are being seated, the student regales his teacher with all he has learned, talking on and on about all he now knows and understands.

As the tea service arrives (why is there always tea in these stories? Nobody ever drinks a cappuccino.  Or a scotch.), the master offers to “be mother” (pour the tea).

He (or possibly a she – they’re almost always referred to in the masculine, these ancient masters of Zen, but perhaps there were a few sage women amongst them), starts pouring from the pot into the cup of the student.  The tea rises to the top of the cup, and the master keeps pouring.  And pouring.  And pouring.  Until the tea has not only spilled over onto the saucer, but is now starting to run on the floor.

The student is aghast and asks his teacher why he keeps pouring.  The master replies “Just like this cup, your mind is so full of your own learning, knowledge and ideas that nothing more can be poured in.”  The lesson being:

Quotation-MarksIf you want to learn something new, you must first empty your cup. 


If your cup — your mind — is already full of what you (think you) already know, there’s no space for anything more to enter your mind, your heart, your soul, and your body. You’re “full”.

And that brings us to the headline of this post.

Experiment – Don’t Assess

A tremendously helpful attitude when learning something new, or undertaking a new path of any kind, is to take on an attitude of experimentation.

An experiment is all about discovery.  It’s a process of exploration.  In a scientific context, it follows a particular protocol, but in other areas of life, I believe it’s best to make up your own journey path.

Perhaps you will follow your nose, or the bread crumbs as you happen to notice them.

Perhaps you will map out of a logical path and follow it, documenting your progress as you go.

Perhaps you will sit and observe for a bit, seemingly doing nothing.

Perhaps there will be periods of intense, inspired activity.

Whatever happens, an experiment gives you permission to roam, to dig, to drift, to burrow, to dredge, to ransack and rummage.


The opposite of an attitude of experimentation is one of assessment.  Where you take a position of assessing what you are undertaking – the content of this new thing, if you will — and determine what you like about it, what you agree with… and what you don’t like, and don’t agree with.

This kind of attitude sets you up to be in either a “one up” or “one down” position to the content of what you’re learning and your journey in total.  You either agree with and understand what you’re learning/doing — putting you in a “one up” position, such as “Ah, I have this!  I get this!  This is like XYZ that I learned before“.

Or you disagree with, don’t understand or don’t like what you’re learning – putting you in a “one down” position, which often results in an attitude of defensiveness (“This is stupid!  Whoever put this silly course together! Ridiculous notion!” and so on).  Or where you feel ignorant and subordinated to and by what you are learning (“I can’t get this!  It’s too complex, too hard!” or “I’m too dumb to get this“).

An assessing attitude doesn’t help in the process of learning, or on boarding, something new, whether it’s a course of study you are undertaking, a new way of looking at the world, or creating new and healthier habits.

But an attitude of experimentation gives you free reign to go where the journey takes you, to shrug off limitations and unhelpful boundaries, and explore all there is to be explored.  And perhaps your experiments will take you to places you never even knew were there.

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