Life by Experiment

A Life of One’s Own: Part 4
For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.” (Marion Milner)

I’ve been writing a series of essays based on Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, Milner published her findings.

This post focuses on discovering for ourselves our values, what makes us happy, and finding our own life instead of needing someone else to tell us how to think and live. Milner says, “I began a task which has absorbed my efforts for many years: trying to manage my life, not according to tradition, or authority, or rational theory, but by experiment.”

Obstacles to Having “A Life of One’s Own”
(1) We assume someone else knows better than we do about how we should live our lives and what we should think.
(2) We rely on experts and authority figures about how we ought to live our life without learning how to think for ourselves. This will usually produce a bigger set a problems than figuring life out for ourselves.
(3) We pursue “better experts”. This is not typically a good solution. It only compounds the problem of us not thinking for ourselves.

We have to put in the difficult work to finding our own life, values, and happiness or we will adopt the values of someone else. “As for the method which led me to these discoveries, let no one think it is an easy way because it is concerned with moments of happiness rather than with stern duty or high moral endeavour. For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.”

Observing Our Own Lives
In a sense, Milner used a scientific methodology. She observed and recorded the actual results of her life to discover what made her happy. Observing the actual results was done instead of imposing all the “should” statements about how to live. With this approach, happiness becomes a diagnostic tool to indicate we’re on the right track. Direct experience + observation of the results = self-knowledge. “Was there not a way by which each person could find out for himself what he was like, not by reading what other people thought he ought to be, but directly, as directly as knowing the sky is blue and how an apple tastes, not needing anyone to tell him?”

Direct Experience as the Priority in Learning
Direct experience of what we think and feel is a valuable way to learn, but we have limited trust in ourselves — even in the basics of what we prefer or enjoy. So we consult the “experts”. We delay our learning because we feel we need an authority, a book, or someone else to tell us how to think and live.

“For a long time I was continually putting off the next step in my exploration because I felt I ought to know more, knew there were many books written about these things, felt that I must read them all before I could go any further. Whenever I gave in to this impulse I found it disastrous. It took me years to learn that I must never begin my search by looking in books, never say, ‘I know too little, I must read some more before I start’, but that I must always observe first, express what I observed, and then, if I needed it, see what the books have to say.”

This order is critical to learning about life, happiness, and who we are. Milner notes:

  1. “I must always observe first”. (Paying attention to actual events of your life verses what you think you “should” do.)
  2. “Express what I observed.” (Recording outcomes.)
  3. “If I needed it, see what the books have to say.” (Refining knowledge.)

It requires some humility to live by experiment. We’re going to make mistakes and we will have to make course corrections. But, this is also true (and even more true) if we continually go to the “experts” first. I speak as someone who has lived at different times from at least two reference points: “Intuitive learning” and “book learning”. I’ve made a lot less mistakes in life and learned a lot more by listening to myself (my true self) followed by seeing “what the books have to say” than I have listening to the “experts”. Again, “learning” is good, however, more information is not a good alternative to thinking. Over reliance on education, constantly consulting the experts, and placing excessive trust in authority figures, but not trusting ourselves will stifle our life.2

You might also be surprised at how much you know already: “Since the best teacher shows the way to finding things out for oneself it is impossible to say how much of the work is the pupil’s own. So it happened that many of those apparent discoveries which burst upon me with a shock of delight turned to be applications of ideas which I had been told already but had not fully understood.

Henry David Thoreau wisely noted in his journals: What does education do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook. 3 I don’t want to be a “straight-cut ditch”. I think I would rather be a “free, meandering brook” discovering my own way through the wilderness of life, beholding the wonder along the way, and, hopefully, enriching the lives of others as well.

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley. All quotations is this post are from this book with the exception of the Thoreau quotation.

2 It may sound like I (or Marion Milner) undervalues education and expertise. This is certainly not the case. Milner was well-educated, a psychoanalyst, and an excellent writer. The problem is abdicating our responsibility to find our own life.

The Journal 1837-1861. Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Damion Searls. New York Review Books. New York.

Jesus Follower, Blogger, Public Speaker.

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2 comments on “Life by Experiment
  1. Larry T says:

    “…more information is not a good alternative to thinking.” -Such a helpful thought!
    And – love Thoreu’s stream analogy!

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