A scientific approach to discovering yourself, and using your discovery as a key to success
In an age of self-discovery, where the rise of technology and the boom of consumerism has begged the question “Who Am I?” more than ever before- it’s tempting to turn to spirituality in a quest to find ourselves. And for some, this is all it takes to find meaning and a sense of identity. After all, spiritual guides, meditation and a host of instructional videos can prove very beneficial to some.
But chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re not one of those people. And quite possibly, after following the advice of the Gurus and the scriptures and your yogi- you’re still at a standstill in terms of discovering yourself and your purpose. You may be as hopeless as this tinybuddha commenter, who claims they have “been meditating for 40 years.. went to Thailand for 2 years and etc.. and done all u did..i hate life now.. i wish i was dead..”
Shockingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, that’s the most popular comment on an article that focuses on spiritual techniques to “finding yourself”. Which begs a new set of questions: is finding yourself reliant on spirituality? Can you still find your purpose, achieve your dreams, and appreciate yourself- with a more grounded perspective on life?
We think so. And in this article, we’re going to take a more scientific approach to finding ourselves. We’ll use the principle of experiments, which includes hypothesis and trial and error, to determine our purpose. We’ll adopt the techniques of renowned career psychologists, to first determine our goals, and then define a path towards them. And most importantly, we’ll defy the modern notion that to discover yourself, you must step away from science and human constructs.
So repeat after me: I don’t have to blindly follow the advice of spiritual leaders. It’s okay to be skeptical; it’s okay to be cynical. It’s okay, because we have science.
Although science can be pretty complicated at times, scientific processes can also be broken down, and simplified in the interest of appealing to a mass market.
In our case, the scientific approach to discovering yourself can also be divided into easy steps. This is a good way of understanding the skeleton of the process, in the interest of having a general outline as a point of reference to return to. We’ll flesh it out later.
So, the five steps to scientifically discovering yourself are:
1. Find your phenomenon: No science investigation can begin without a point of interest, a phenomenon to research. So first, decide what aspect of yourself you’d like to “discover”.
For us, long-term goals and a path towards a career that will give us a sense of purpose is the biggest part of “ourselves” that we’d like to discover. Yours may vary, but the actual phenomenon doesn’t matter- because the process to discovering it remains the same.
2. Prioritize your strategies: The internet, as well as countless videos and self-help guides, outline hundreds of different strategies available to those interested in discovering one or several aspects of themselves.
In order to begin the scientific process of determining the best techniques for you, you first have to narrow your options down to a reasonable selection. In the interest of manageable variety, we recommend narrowing your options down to 10 strategies.
3. Determine your hypothesis: Take a minute to consider the outcome of these strategies, and what you think will result from you trying them. This assumption is called a “hypothesis”, and while it may evoke hellish memories of high school chem lab, it’s actually an invaluable step that helps you manage your expectations.
Approach it realistically; don’t expect a single self-help technique to magically create a detailed plan of how to achieve your dream career. Expect it to help you understand what you dream career entails, for example, and work from there.
4. Experiment, experiment, experiment: Once you’ve prioritized your strategies, and have devised a hypothesis for each of them, it’s time to experiment with these techniques.
In the interest of reaching your goal, or investigating your “phenomenon” as quickly as possible, find an efficient way of testing these theories. For example, give each strategy one month (or one week) of your time. And when the time comes to retest a strategy, tweak the technique a little. If you’re experimenting with an exercise that works on discovering your career strengths, for example, then change your outlook entirely- and pick a new set of skills to test.
5. Apply your results to real life: After weeks of rigorous testing, results may begin to appear. You may have determined strategies that reveal your key interests, and found a sense of purpose in a passion of yours. You may now know your strengths, and weaknesses, relating to your dream career. You may have devised the best strategy for balancing the components in your life that give you the biggest sense of fulfillment, that make you “you”.
Now you have to scale these results to fit your everyday life. Find a way to apply these strategies in the long-term, without growing tired or bored of them. These strategies, if scaled properly, can continue to provide results well into the future.
So now that we know why we can use science to discover ourselves, it’s important to understand exactly how we can work at applying this to reality. How do these steps factor into our lives, our days, our busy weeks or errand filled weekends?
The easiest way to discover yourself is to compartmentalize “you”. Divide yourself into different segments, and allow each portion to represent a part of your life that you deem important enough to fulfill “you”. Then, tackle all of these categories individually. It’s much less overwhelming to view “you” as many, manageable parts; as opposed to one huge entity to tackle alone.
Your categories are personal, and subjective to your values. For example, many people would list: “family me”, “career me” and “romantic me” as categories that together form “me”.
Discovering these components is part of the process of discovering yourself.
Once you’ve established what it is that makes you “you” on a more general level, then you can work on discovering what all of these components mean in detail; with the intention of ultimately discovering yourself, and finding purpose in life.
Start with step number 1. Finding your phenomenon.
Finding your phenomenon, in this context, means finding an aspect of your professional life that will help you feel fulfilled. It means deciding on something that will give you purpose and using the scientific approach to determine if this is actually an accurate reflection of yourself.
To simplify this process, you can view step one as “finding your goal”.
Goals can be difficult to determine, particularly if you have several interests- or perhaps, very few. Fortunately, there are simple exercises you can perform, in the interest of finding your passions and subsequently your goals. In fact, if you need to find your goals, view this process as an opportunity to test the scientific approach on a smaller scale. Find a strategy, determine a hypothesis, experiment and then apply the results.
[Remember that this large, long term goal doesn’t have to be specific. You need to identify a vague, nondescript signpost- one that you can later work backwards from. This goal doesn’t have to consist of a ten point plan on how you’re going to feel fulfilled, it will simply act as a generic purpose that you can spend your professional life working towards. It embodies your passion, but it doesn’t have to accurately reflect your future.]
The easiest way to determine your passion and goals is to determine one large, long term goal and then work backwards from this ideal- thereby creating a series of smaller, more achievable goals. Use the internet, self-help guides or the advice of a career counselor- find a strategy that works for you.
One popular exercise recommended by experts is a self-assessment technique. This strategy consists of you asking yourself questions, and using the answers as an indication of where your true passion lies. If you’ve chosen to prioritize this strategy, remember to create a hypothesis beforehand. Use any knowledge of yourself, for example your levels of introspectiveness, to determine whether asking yourself questions will prove fruitful. Remember to be realistic: asking yourself a set of questions will not help you resolve your life’s biggest issues. However, it may help distinguish between your “passions” and your “vague interests”.
Once you’ve determined your hypothesis, ask yourself a huge variety of questions, and experiment as much as possible. If you find a particular set of questions is effective at triggering a particular response, then tweak these questions, or find alternatives- and ask yourself this hybrid selection of questions thereafter.
Once you’ve obtained your results, use this data to help you determine your goals. Ideally, you should now have identified a passion with which to work with. Use this passion to find your goal, and use our quick guide to finding your goal as a blueprint for this process.
The quick guide to finding your goal
When choosing your career goal, or any goal, it’s important that you follow these three simple guidelines:
- Be specific
- Be realistic
- Make it measurable
1) If you pick an unspecific goal, for example “I want to become incredibly rich someday”, then you will more than likely never even begin to accomplish it- because you don’t know precisely what “it” looks like.
However, if you choose a goal that specifies your intentions, for example “I want to start a company that grosses at least $100,000 in profit per year by 2021”-then suddenly this seems much more achievable. You have a decisive, concrete goal to work towards that is void of any abstract or vague phrases that could potentially dissuade you.
2) An article by career counselors at time-management-guide.com recommends you clear your mind of psychological blocks in order to find your goals. And being realistic is one way to free yourself from the psychological negativity surrounding failure. After all, being realistic ties into being specific. If you choose an outlandish goal that is simply unachievable, all this will do is knock your confidence, and deter you from pursuing a career goal that is attainable in the long term.
Look at the passions you previously established, and find a compromise. If your passion is landscaping, for example, and your long term goal is to own a hugely successful landscaping company- then try and redesign this interest into something more achievable in the short term. Don’t eradicate this huge goal, as dreaming is an important part of feeling fulfilled. However, consider creating a separate “sub-goal” to work towards in the meantime. For example “I want to land a supervising or managerial position in an existing, successful landscaping company”.
3) In order to accomplish one of your goals, you have to be able to measure progress- and more importantly, understand what success ultimately looks like. Having a unit of measurement will help you do this.
This unit of measurement could include the time you spend worrying, a significant reduction in feelings of stress and anxiety, or even visible steps you’ve taken towards accomplishing your goals. The unit doesn’t matter, particularly. The important factor is being able to track your progress.
Once you’ve established a specific, realistic and measurable goal- you can then work backwards in your quest towards achieving it. Look at your end goal, and determine the steps needed to accomplish it.
By working backwards from your goals, you’re completing step number 2 in the scientific process of discovering yourself. You’re prioritizing strategies.
And you’re doing this by highlighting the steps that require strategies in the first place.
For example, let’s use our running example of discovering our “career self”.
You’ve determined your end goal. You want to create a company that profits $100,000 dollars in revenue per year, with a measurable time limit of 5 years in which to accomplish this.
Working backwards from this attainable goal, you realize that the logical step before that is owning a company that revenues $50k/year. The step before that is launching your completed business. The step before that is refining your business strategy. The step before that is creating a plan for your business. And the step before that, arguably the first step, is thinking of an idea or concept on which to found the business.
So why should you work backwards? In theory, working backwards only helps if you’re ultimate goal contains figures or numbers with which to work with. These numbers traditionally consist of a value for your profit, and a value for the time limit you’ve set yourself.
It’s incredibly important that you align your goals with numbers, especially if you’re attempting to discover your career self. If you’re undergoing any self-discovery, where you hope to discover what it is you want to achieve in life financially, then you need to approach it with a financial angle. This means, that when you’re drafting your goals, you need to consider numbers as well as abstract ambitions.
For example, if you know that you want to earn $100,000 dollars per year in 5 years’ time, this means that you need to be increasing your businesses’ profit by $25,000 every year, for 5 years.
In order to create a company with an exponential growth of this size, you need to develop an extremely efficient business strategy. This business strategy needs to include a forecast of the economy and any volatile markets for the next five years- at least.
When you begin with a specific, realistic and measurable goal- you can work backwards to assess the steps needed in order to complete it. And once you’ve assessed these steps, you can assess the need for strategies.
While this sounds specific to you discovering your “career” self, it’s not. If you’re attempting to discover your “relationship” self then the process would remain the same. Once you’ve established your goal, and taken the time to understand what would fulfill you in terms of your long-term relationships, then you must work backwards in an attempt to discover the best way for “you” to become “you.
For example, if you conclude that your ultimate relationship goal is “marriage with 2 children in 7 years’ time”- then you would work backwards in an attempt to achieve it. Keeping in mind any values in your goal, for example the 7 year deadline, as well as the idea that 2 pregnancies last roughly 2 years (if completed almost consecutively) and an engagement typically lasts 1- then you calculate that, realistically, you have 4 years to meet and marry your match. Working backwards, you attempt to discover what your “match” consists of. Observing your plan, you note the need for strategies.
Regardless, let’s return to our original analogy, the road to self-discovery- destination: “career self”. You have your goal, you’ve discovered your phenomenon, and you’ve completed step 1 of the scientific approach to discovering yourself.
You’ve worked backwards from your goal, and you now have a concrete (ideally physical) plan designed to help you achieve it. Looking at your plan, you should note some gaps- or an absence of details.
For example, you may not know what this “business” looks like. You may have established a vague goal, you may have then determined the ideal goal, and you may have worked backwards in an attempt to find the “mini goals” that can help you achieve ultimate fulfillment in life. But there may be gaps in the process, and you may realize that finding the creative and innovative idea needed to start your business is a huge challenge. You may discover that creating a successful business strategy is a process that stretches beyond your professional limitations. You may unearth some gaps in your big plan.
This is all part of scientifically discovering yourself, because unsureness calls to attention step number 2: “prioritize your strategies”. If there are things about your plan that you don’t know, or are unsure about, then it’s time to look for strategies. Look online, in your local library, and even amongst friends and colleagues for any exercises or techniques that may help diagnose the solutions to your very real problems.
Don’t take step 2 lightly. Finding the right strategies to test is invaluable to the success of this scientific project. If you pick random, unconsidered methods to experiment with- then you may limit yourself in the long-term. Consider the strategies you’re choosing to help you, and look at the hypothesis that follows. If your assumption is that they will absolutely not work in helping you create an efficient business strategy, then consider choosing another technique, or consider testing it anyway in order to assess your judgement.
When choosing strategies, you’re also listing problems in need of resolutions. Therefore, your list of strategies should naturally be written alongside a list of problems. This will help you identify your weaknesses, which will help you create a successful career in the long-term- as well aid you in your self-discovery.
Look at compiling your strategies into a spreadsheet, or on a document specifically created with intention of collecting any devices that may help you achieve success. Once you’ve created a comprehensive list of strategies to try, step 3 becomes critical to the process. Looking at each technique that you’ll attempt, in your mission to discover the details of your plan, consider each of their outcomes. Create unique hypotheses for each technique, and evaluate their success level.
Also, remember that hypotheses are purely assumptions, and assumptions can be wrong. This is the purpose of step 4, experimenting, as it validates your assumptions- or negates them entirely. In order to create an efficient experimentation process, consider testing one strategy per problem at a time.
Your strategies will vary wildly, according to your goals and your specific needs. However, for the sake of inclusion, in our real life example below we’ll use a strategy that could be used by someone attempting to tackle a lack of confidence.
Confidence is everything when attempting to build a successful career, and many people who work backwards from their goal find themselves at an impasse, particularly when one goal or plan involves ‘pitching’, ‘presenting’ or generally having the self-assurance to sell a risky business to a potential investor. A problem of this nature requires a scientific approach, and more relevantly, a psychological approach. One popular psychological strategy is exposure therapy, which is the technique we will theoretically experiment with below. At this point, step 4 and 5 become critical, and central to the scientific process.
The fact that we’ve identified a problem means that we’ve found a phenomenon (step 1: check), we have a strategy which means that we’ve prioritized it over other alternatives (step 2: check). For step 3, we must deduce a hypothesis.
Using online research, we can make an informed assumption. Exposure therapy is a common form of treatment for those who suffer from anxiety in general. Let’s assume that, in this example, we lack confidence primarily in social situations that involve presenting. Most psychologists would view this as a form of social anxiety, and perhaps a type of stage fright. If we research the correlation between social anxiety and stage fright, we find a largely positive outcome.
For example, according to currentpsychiatry.com, “cognitive behavioral therapy with components of exposure and retraining can ameliorate performance anxiety”. They go on to suggest that “Exposure therapy can help individuals face feared activities so that counter-conditioning through habituation and extinction can safely occur. Useful strategies include imagination, role play, confrontation, videotaping, and homework assignments”.
Thanks to this research, we now not only have some evidence to support our hypothesis- but we also have some sub strategies that could prove useful in step 5. So using this research, we deduce that exposure therapy is a strategy that should prove effective at helping resolve the problem of stage fright.
According to sciencebuddies.org, there is a correct way to phrase a hypothesis. In the interest of keeping this scientific approach somewhat relevant, we’ll attempt to incorporate this into the process. The appropriate way to phrase a hypothesis is:
“If ____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen.”
If we customize this to fit our scenario, our hypothesis becomes:
“If I expose myself to situations I’m scared of, then I will grow more confident”.
So we have a phenomenon, a strategy and a hypothesis. This calls to attention step 4, the experimentation process, where we put our assumptions to the test.
Because we’re using a common, all-inclusive example of a problem that (when resolved) will help us discover ourselves- we can use examples of other people experimenting and tweaking in order to illustrate the process. This is to say, that while we personally haven’t experimented with this strategy, many (many) people before us have. So let’s look at one of these experiments.
In 1991, the New York Times ran an in-depth expose about two psychiatrists working with musicians, in an attempt to help them overcome their stage fright. The article outlines the experiment, conducted by Dr. Duncan Clark and Dr. Stewart Agras, who worked at Pittsburgh and Stanford University respectively.
The two psychiatrists recruited 94 musicians who suffered from crippling stage fright, and were unable to further their career as a result of this problem. In a way, their anxiety was impeding them from finding fulfillment, and discovering the potential of their “true self”.
The experiment involved the musicians performing in front of each other in small groups, on a weekly basis. This involved exposing the subjects to a scenario that was essentially a practical embodiment of the problem they were attempting to tackle. After the first experiment, some musicians found that the strategy was beneficial in highlighting the triggers for their anxiety. They discovered that “thoughts that prompted their anxiety were largely distortions” and that “one of the greatest provokers of anxiety in the musicians was the thought that their anxiety was all too obvious to their audiences”.
The psychiatrists repeated this experiment every week, for an unspecified period of time. This was an efficient way to find a quick set of results, as by the end of the month, the scientists had already collected 4-5 sets of data.
Each week, the experiment was slightly different, by the very nature that the candidates had more self-awareness. Once they had assessed their triggers, they had a new perspective, which was in itself a tweak from the first experiment.
While this is also relevant in your experiment, you should actively seek to tweak a component you know is ineffective. For example, in the context of this experiment, if you knew that your fear was lessening as result of your growing more comfortable with the group you were performing in front of (and your anxiety is triggered primarily by an audience of strangers), then change the group of people in your next experiment.
For the sake of this example, below, we will use the results of other experiments to illustrate our data. Other experiments provide a pseudo “tweaking”, because no two experiments conducted by different scientists can be the same.
Once the New York Times experiment was repeated a number of times, and tweaked either naturally or purposefully, the data was evaluated. According to the New York Times article, “A comparison of the musicians’ performances in front of another audience, all strangers, before and after the treatment showed that those who went through the therapy played substantially better, while those who were given [a] drug showed no improvement”.
Is this in keeping with our hypothesis?
“If I expose myself to situations I’m scared of, then I will grow more confident”.
For step 4 to be complete, we must tweak the experiment, so we’ll use other research conducted by other psychiatrists.
According to simplypsyschology.org, the results of two similar studies (that investigated different forms of anxiety) were as follows:
Lang et al. (1963) used SD* with a group of college students who were all suffering from a snake phobia. They underwent 11 sessions to work through a hierarchy. Hypnosis was used to assist in the maintenance of relaxation. The P’s fear rating fell and improvements were still evident 6 months later.
Rothbaum et al. (2000) used SD* with participants who were afraid of flying. Following treatment 93% agreed to take a trial flight. It was found that anxiety levels were lower than those of a control group who had not received SD and this improvement was maintained when they were followed up 6 months later.
*(Where SD means Systemic Desensitization, a different term for exposure therapy)
Did these, “tweaked” experiments match our hypothesis?
“If I expose myself to situations I’m scared of, then I will grow more confident”.
And this means that, through the process of scientifically experimenting, we found a strategy to overcome a problem that was impeding our goal. We found a way to find fulfillment in life, and eradicated a long term obstacle that was standing in our way. In many ways, we view this as a successful attempt at discovering ourselves through science.
And as you can see, this process has no limitations. If you find a phenomenon to investigate; find strategies to help you experiment; create a simple hypothesis and then experiment as much as possible- you can find an effective solution to your problem.
Suddenly, any challenges stopping you from fulfilling your long-term goal- and preventing you from fulfilling your potential- become manageable.
Now for step 5: applying your results to real life.
So what does this truly entail? Well, now that we know that exposure therapy can help us overcome a problem standing in the way of us achieving our goals, and fulfilling the “me” we have discovered- we need to apply this to real life. In the context of this example, one practical way to incorporate this into our daily lives is to subject ourselves to as many presentations as possible. Volunteer ourselves for these positions.
A second practical application of this data is for us to rehearse throughout the week, in front of a small selection of colleagues or friends, or better yet- in front of any strangers generously recruited through willing friends or family.
A third practical application would be for us to join a program specifically designed to help alleviate social anxiety through exposure therapy. Some behavioral psychiatrists run seminars or workshops, where the sole purpose is to make your perform in front of an audience of strangers. A quick internet search can result in a directory, such as this one, which may help us locate a class nearby.
Now that we have completed step 5, and found a successful way to apply an effective strategy to our day to day lives- the process is complete. And the results are positive.
This, therefore, becomes a successful and scientific approach to discovering yourself through science. This successfully defies any spiritualism you may have attempted in the past, which proved thoroughly ineffective.
We now have a way to find a goal, identify a problem, compile a list of solutions to this problem, experiment with these solutions and apply effective ones to real life.
We have a scientific approach to discovering ourselves, and a technique for applying this to reality, in an attempt to generate success.
So to recap, the 5 steps to scientifically find your career (or any other self) are:
1) Find your phenomenon. Search within yourself and look for any gaps in need of answering or clarification.
2) Prioritize your strategies. Look everywhere and anywhere for strategies that can help you achieve your long and short term goals. Compile these.
3) Determine your hypothesis. Make an informed assumption, and use research to back your claims. Make sure to keep an element of realism present in all of your endeavors.
4) Experiment, experiment, experiment. Don’t be scared to change the experiment if you identify a variable that is simply ineffective. Experiment as much as possible, and find an efficient way to repeat these experiments quickly.
5) Apply your results to real life. Once you’ve compiled data, and identified a successful strategy, apply this to your life. Find a reasonable technique that you can commit to on a regular or semi-regular basis.
However, above all, enjoy the process of discovering yourself and assessing your career goals. It’s an invaluable step in taking ownership of your life, and working towards a sense of purpose and fulfillment.