Personal Development, Self-Experiments, and the Future of Search

We experiment on ourselves and track the results to improve the way we work, our health, and our personal lives. This rational approach is essential because there are few guarantees that what works for others will work for us. Take the category of sleep, for example. Of the hundreds of tinctures and techniques available, clearly not all help everyone, or there would be exactly one title in the sleep section of your bookstore, called “Sleep,” and no one could argue about its effectiveness. Treating these improvements experimentally, however, requires a major shift in thinking.

But being human isn’t that simple. There are variables and confounding factors that mean you have to take matters actively into your hands if you want to really know what’s personally effectual. That’s why what we do here is so exciting. Instead of accepting common sense, we take a “prove it to me” approach and work to find out for ourselves. Operating from this basis, rather than faith, is more effective in the long run. (It’s why we use science to understand the world, rather than astrology or phrenology, for example. Just look at what we’ve accomplished.)

As I tried to say in Making citizen scientists, this is heralding a move from citizens-as-helpers to true citizen scientists – people who get genuinely curious about something and decide to test things out for themselves, rather than simply trusting what others say will work. If we expand that vision five or ten years in the future, I think there could be a major shift in how we search for ways to improve ourselves, and that’s what I want to share here.

Picture that you have something you’re trying to change, and you want to find starting points, especially what’s worked for others. Ideally you know someone who can point you in the right direction (medical professionals come to mind), but rarely do our social and professional circles cover everything we want to improve. Normally we are on our own, and must sit down and courageously cast ourselves into the vast sea of the web. What do we find? An insane number of hits mysteriously organized by clever algorithms. Again, take sleep. My search for insomnia yielded over three million hits. How do we decide how to use these results? I think the fundamental issue is of trust. How can I trust what I read if there is nothing backing it up? Google is great for some things, but for self-improvement, what I want isn’t necessarily what’s popular (let’s face it, the popular kids at school weren’t necessarily the smartest – spoken from experience). What I want is something that’s a reasonable starting point. That is, something that has a high likelihood of yielding useful information that moves me quickly in a helpful direction. (My scientific colleague calls this exploring the “search frontier.”)

Instead, what we have is a immense collection of definitions, blog posts, news articles, how to’s, marketing literature, product reviews, fringe nuttiness, and the like. In other words, a Wild West of self-improvement. Exciting, dangerous, risky, unproven, and loaded with potential.

What’s closer to what we want are the discussion board threads and blog comment exchanges where people shared what they tried and what has and hasn’t worked. After a quick search, two examples that came up in the sleep realm are at talk about sleep and iVillage. However, we have three problems. First, my search for insomnia discussion boards still generated almost three million hits. That means we don’t know where the quality work is taking place. Second, and far worse, is that the way people have gone about their search for solutions is rarely principled. This is because applying a scientific approach to self-help, as I tried to explain above, is still rare. (Want to test that? Just try to tell someone why you’re reading this site, and watch the confusion on his face. “You’re tracking what? But WHY?”) With questionable methodologies come questionable results. Finally, if there truly are well-run experiments, they are scattered throughout the site on various threads, the data is not likely in a form we can analyze, and it’s very hard to find who else has tried the experiments and what they discovered. In other words, the knowledge, experiences, and results of everyone’s hard work isn’t structured or centralized. And that’s a massive waste.

Now imagine that there is a community of self-experimentation tools that meet the three characteristics I outlined in my experiment-driven life talk (my original post is here): Broad, Social, and Scientific. On these sites will be records of millions of past and in-progress experiments being performed daily by thousands of citizen scientists, both individually and collectively. They will be structured to expose what folks did specifically, how the process went for them (in some ways as important as results themselves), what the data was, and how they interpreted it. And they will have targeted search tools to find experiments in a variety of ways – topic, treatment type, ratings, etc.

Visualize yourself going to one of those sites and searching folks’ work for your topic. Assuming they’re structured reasonably, you could find something marvelous: Actual personal experiments, around your situation, with their data and conclusions. Wow! This should allow you to get a summary view of the things people have tried, who else tried it, and what they learned. In other words, it would be a data-driven entry to deciding what I should start trying.

Ultimately, I envision this moving towards a kind of personal development “general store” where instead of facing an intimidatingly large self-help section in your bookstore (i.e., the big-box help-yourself model), you come to a desk with one person sitting and asking, “How can I help?” You tell her your topic and a little about yourself, then ask for advice. The clerk, who has read all of the books on the subject, answers, “For someone like you, the most effective experiments were …” and lists five or six to look at. I think of it as a kind of intelligent, experiment-based search engine that factors in personal data, demographics, and topic (maybe as simple as keywords, for starters) and serves up ballpark suggestions.

What do you think? My ideas are still developing, so this is still a little rough, but I honestly believe we could build such an ecosystem. Are you with me?

[Image from NNECAPA]

(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter’s journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at

About Matthew Cornell

Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at
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10 Responses to Personal Development, Self-Experiments, and the Future of Search

  1. Sounds like CureTogether…?

  2. Bridget says:

    Yes! I was just thinking about this last night in terms of Google’s search algorithm. Google serves up “relevant” searches based on search term, links to/from the site, etc.

    I’m developing a personal form of search for myself with the goal of making my internet time more efficient and producing more high-quality results. I sketched it out and in very rough terms here is my example: I love indie fashion blogs >> I spend too much time following outbound links >> The majority of outbound links are not valuable to me. >> How can I continue to read my favorites, find new and valuable sites, and maximize my time?

    I’m experimenting with a solution using time blocks. Once I determine how this works for me over 7 days, I will apply this to my other interests like QS/Personal Informatics, and so on. The problem is that I am doing this manually but as I learn algorithmic coding.

    Thanks for this post! I’m happy to volunteer if you need it.

  3. @Thomas: CureTogether is an impressive work, and I continue to be amazed by Alex and her team’s vision and implementation. She can correct me, but what I think it provides is a large, crowd-sourced database of symptoms, treatments, and causes, with social, browsing, and recommendation tools. In the picture I am trying to paint, the focus would be a little different, with additional elements that would be in place. Two things come to mind: an experiment-centric mindset where individuals implement a personal scientific method, and a focus both on the individual’s process and results (which of course gets aggregated across all users, or all users like you). Thanks for the question – it got me thinking.


    > How can I continue to read my favorites, find new and valuable sites, and maximize my time?

    An excellent question, and I really like your experiment using time blocks. I’d love to know what you do and how it works out. Feel free to to use Edison for it ( ;-)

    I think it’s a hard problem. I wrote about it a while ago at Information provenance – the missing link between attention, RSS feeds, and value-based filtering, with the thought that “The links from source to value are one-way, with no feedback.”

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Matthew,

    Great idea, I already have a very large community at I am coming to the first conference to look at ideas for our community. I have built a complete self improvement system based on what I term Personal Evolution. It involves daily coaching, reading and tools. What I have not developed is the quantified measurement side. I am really excited to come out to the conference and look for some ideas for the thousands of members from around the world.

    I have known about the QS community for about three weeks and immediately signed up for the conference. I am anxious to meet everyone out there and I am open to ideas. Great idea Matthew.

    Thank You,
    JB Glossinger

    • Hi JB. Your comment got me cooking.

      > I already have a very large community at … It involves daily coaching, reading and tools

      Congratulations on building a successful community. As I work on ways to help people live the experiment-driven life, I continue to be impressed by sites like the ones mentioned here. I am too excited to hear ideas at the conference – with the point of getting people to Think, Try, Learn.

      I agree that forming lasting behavior changes is essential. I see that as being complimentary to what I sketch out, i.e., as part of the bigger community. Maybe the path is: 1) decide where you want to improve your life -> 2) research possible experiments via my above sketch -> 3) work the TTL cycle -> 4) analyze to decide next steps (a. keep experimenting with it, b. try something else, or maybe c. incorporate it permanently) -> 5) share what you learned (also done implicitly in 3). OK, this little analysis is good. Maybe #2 is where CureTogether could come in, and #4c would be via a site like yours?

      > I have known about the QS community for about three weeks and immediately signed up for the conference. I am anxious to meet everyone out there and I am open to ideas. Great idea Matthew.

      Look me up. I’ll be the guy in the “What would Edison do?” t-shirt ;-) Thanks for your comment.

  5. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks Thomas and Matt. Maybe I can clarify!

    CureTogether does allow any member to add treatments, protocols, or things they are trying to help improve their health, in a single word or in as much detail as they like. Individuals can see how the treatment/protocol is working by measuring their health improvement over time through a “condition score” that is calculated each time they take the symptom survey. And other people coming to the site can see how well the treatment/protocol has been rated to work for everyone else who is trying it. These features are already in place, and continually being tweaked for ease of use.

    We are in the process of adding algorithms to increasingly personalize treatment recommendations and sharing of results, so if someone like you has tried something that worked well, and you haven’t tried it yet, you’ll get a suggestion about it. We will also be adding more opportunities to define experiments, recruit others to join, and analyze the results, as people request this (we have a few self-tracking experiment requests in the pipeline).

    But yes, we are primarily focused on health, not things like productivity or energy consumption, etc.

  6. Daniel says:

    Great article. I agree 100% personal development is a must for any human being wanting to excel at life. If we all focused on this the world would be a better place. Feel free to post a comment and sitelink on my personal development blog. Thanks -Daniel

  7. [Here's reader's comment from my blog on this story, and my brief reply.]

    Does your vision have to be experiments/data only? What about communities of experts — discussing/doing things/answering questions/teaching — Could be anything: dance/green building/bee keeping/burning mouth syndrome. Some merger of edison/stack exchange/wikipedia/the library/cohousing/

    Absolutely. I envision an authority/editorial layer to Edison where experts like you mention add meaning to experiments, and provide interpretation and guidance based on their experience. I see a role for both.

  8. Pingback: My Personal Development Strategy: Life Is An Experimental Game « Become Unrestricted

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