One day, I was hiking in the mountains with my girlfriend. On the way back, we got a little bit lost and I decided to put my survival skills to work. It didn’t take long for me to find the trail. I assumed that this was the trail we followed to get up to the summit. I was sure of it. I remembered. I saw the same trees. Of course the trail wasn’t the right one and we got even more lost. It took us hours to get back on the right track.
Almost a decade ago, I spent a few months in California. I saw that every elite university has an alumni club and graduates are its proud members. When I returned home, I decided to found an alumni club of my high school, since it was an elite one. I strongly assumed that the school will see the benefits, people will love it and everybody will be happy. The school blocked it, people ignored it and it became one of my failed projects.
A few years back, I decided to get fit. I never did any sports, and healthy living was something alien to me. On top of that I was super fat. It made complete logical sense to me that to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you only have to go to the gym a few times and mind your food a little bit. Maybe you eat a cup of protein powder from time to time. Now more than three years have passed and I still don’t look anywhere near like Schwarzenegger.
In all three stories, I was operating based on wrong assumptions. I was 100 % sure that I knew what I was doing, but I was wrong. Meeting reality wasn’t easy. And you have to meet it sooner or later in one way or another.
Life works in a way that in many cases, you have no other choice but to rely on your assumptions. But it helps a lot if you know that they are nothing but assumptions that need to be tested as quickly as possible. Because wrong assumptions are the mother of all fuckups.
Don’t doubt yourself, but absolutely doubt everything you assume.
We know two types of reality – the objective and subjective one. The objective reality isn’t accessible to any living being. The objective reality is how things really are in the world. We try to come as close to it as possible, especially with science.
Nevertheless, complete objective reality will probably still be inaccessible for a long period of time, because there are always things for which we don’t know that we don’t know them. Artificial intelligence may be the first one to come as close to objective reality as possible.
Here is an example of how complicated it may be to get to the bottom of objective truth:
- People used to believe that you got ill because you became possessed by evil spirits.
- Then doctors believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humors.
- Now we “know” that viruses and bacteria cause a big portion of diseases, but the question is if maybe there even exists something else that we don’t know yet and that causes real illness? In hundred years, will a pill be seen as a primitive solution, like a herbal potion mixture is seen today?
- And many times, the placebo effect can help you get better, so it’s not only about drugs.
The second type of reality is your subjective reality. The subjective reality is your own interpretation of the world. It’s the lens through which you see the world, the frame in which you operate.
The lenses of how you interpret the world are created by your beliefs, values, past experiences, upbringing, environment and other similar factors, including your assumptions. These lenses are the primary source of how you make your decisions in life.
As we’ve learnt, there are many errors in your subjective reality. Your senses have a limited capacity for capturing information, your brains have a limited ability for processing information, there are many things you don’t know or lack experience, everyone has many cognitive distortions and there are numerous other sources of errors in the subjective reality map.
One big family of errors in the subjective map of reality are cognitive biases. It’s something you can’t avoid, but you can become aware that they’re part of your thinking. From stereotyping, conformation bias and anchoring to projection, transference and the halo effect. The list of cognitive biases is very long.
Ironically, many of the cognitive biases exist to support your survival. They serve to help you protect your self-image, to deal with optimization, to help you make complex decisions, judge probabilities and avoid danger.
They may often provide you with psychological safety and protection, but they also often help you hide behind lies or drive you to make stupid decisions.
The other big family of errors in the subjective map of reality are wrong assumptions. You assume something will happen, but it doesn’t. You assume you know something, but you don’t. You take action, but you get a different reaction than you expected.
That’s because the objective world is always different from your subjective representations and unique interpretations. Because of this gap, expecting anything leads to a very high probability of disappointment.
The world of wrong assumptions
You make assumptions all the time, you can’t avoid this phenomenon. It’s the way we humans operate, it’s how our brains function. Therefore, it’s impossible not to make any assumptions. The problem arises when you believe that your assumptions are the truth. But they are not, they’re only assumptions.
It’s impossible not to make assumptions, but you can become aware that they are only assumptions, not the truth.
There are so many different types of assumptions you make. Let’s look at just a few of them.
You assume you communicated something clearly, but maybe you haven’t. You assume other people know what you want or that they have the same values as you. But they probably don’t. You make different assumptions about what might work and what might not. In reality, you never know.
You make assumptions about what other people think and what will they probably do. You even make assumptions about what other people think of you. You make assumptions about which ideas will work and which ones won’t, how it would be like to live in another country and so on, you make assumptions practically about everything.
The key question is: if you can’t avoid making assumptions, what can you do about it? First of all, as we said, don’t mistake assumptions for the truth.
Be aware that you are making nothing but assumptions. Then put assumptions to the test as soon as possible. Do a series of actions and experiments that will get you closer to the objective truth.
Put your assumptions to the test
The best cure for those errors in your subjective map of reality that you make because you assume things is to put assumptions to the test. You conduct a series of small actions and experiments that slowly lead you to a better understanding of the objective reality.
You will never completely reach the objective truth, but you don’t have to. All you need is a superior understanding and key insights on which you can set your actions.
There are many ways how you can do that. Before we dive into different approaches to testing assumptions, or hypotheses to sound more scientific, you must make sure that you become aware of the assumptions you’re making. You do that in two simple steps:
- You say to yourself: I am only making an assumption, I don’t know the truth.
- Then you ask yourself: how can I validate or reject my assumptions, how can I put them to the test?
After becoming aware of the assumptions you’re making, there are several ways how you can test them. Here are a few most common approaches:
- Ask questions and get educated
- Get out and gain experience
- Search before you execute
- Actionable metrics
- Random experiences
- Research techniques
Ask questions and get educated
The first thing you can do to put certain types of assumptions to the test is to ask questions. Don’t be shy, just ask.
You assume s/he doesn’t feel the way you feel? Ask. You assume a person doesn’t like you? Ask if that’s true and why. You don’t understand something? Ask. When you’re in a dilemma and you can ask a person to give a clarification, do it, don’t hesitate.
A quick important note, when you ask people about clarifications make sure you also observe their behavior, not only listen to what they have to say. What people do is often more important than what they say. Because everyone lives in their own subjective reality, where we don’t even know the truth about ourselves.
The second thing you can do is to get educated. Read books on the topic. Talk to people who have already achieved what you want to achieve. Subscribe to an online course. Model other people.
Knowledge is not as valuable as real-life experience, but it absolutely makes sense to get very well-educated first and then you immediately apply knowledge to practice.
There are always “aha” moments when you start educating yourself. You say to yourself many times, oh I didn’t know that is so, I imagined it (assumed) a lot differently. Ask questions, get educated, doubt every statement; but believe in yourself.
Go out and gain first-hand experience
First-hand experience acquired by small carefully set experiments is definitely a very good way to test the majority of assumptions. There is no better teacher than reality.
Meeting reality can be harsh, but it really enables you to understand the world and yourself better. That’s why you have to do small manageable experiments. In other words, you have to be constantly in the learning, not the panic zone.
There is a saying that you make good decisions based on experience and you gain experience based on bad decisions. That saying exposes very well how gaining real-life experience works. You’re always wrong before you’re right. You take a small step, you fail, you learn, you stand up again and then you continue in a new direction; you go from failure to failure until you succeed.
You assume you have a good business idea? Build a landing page and send some traffic to it. It costs you a weekend of work and a few hundred dollars. You assume you don’t like to travel? Try it. You assume you’re a bad lecturer? Give it a shot. Today, you can luckily test almost everything, quickly and inexpensively.
The search mode
The search mode is nothing but a systematical series of experiments for finding your perfect fit in a specific area of life. You consciously decide that you will search for a thing that works for you and you don’t stop until you find it.
In the search mode, you shouldn’t have any expectations, you shouldn’t make any commitments and you shouldn’t do any hard work. Expectations lead to disappointments and before you understand something, your expectations are definitely completely wrong. In the search phase, you just try, experiment, observe, reflect and learn about yourself and the world.
The most important thing in this phase is to have no fixed ideas and no expectations at all. Your only job is to test the assumptions you’ve written down, correct them, and try different things in order to find out what suits you best.
This phase is only about learning, nothing else. No goals. Just learning and playing. After every experiment you conduct, you decide whether to persevere or pivot.
If you want to be in the search mode, you have to meet the following criteria:
- You consciously decide that you will enter the search mode
- You write down what kind of experiments you will make
- You set “search mode” metrics and define very well how you will measure your progress
- Every experiment needs to be validated or rejected based on the set metrics
- You write down what you’ve learnt after every experiment
- You make a decision whether you will pivot or preserve
- Everything needs to be written down, otherwise you can quickly forget what you’ve learnt
Use actionable metrics
Science conducts a carefully orchestrated set of experiments to better understand how the world works. In order for the experiments to be as accurate as possible, there are many different rules to follow – deduction, induction, hypotheses, variables, control groups etc.
In most cases, some kind of metrics are involved – you have to measure to either validate or reject your assumptions.
That’s why metrics go hand in hand with experiments. Metrics, at the end of the day, are the best indicator of how accurate your assumptions are. Thus you have to base most of your agency and learning on life metrics.
You have to measure when you’re right and when you’re wrong. You have to measure when you’re progressing and when you’re lying to yourself with the fake feeling of progress.
There are many ways how you can measure things. From your physical responses and emotions, to the feedback you get from your environment and the monetary value you create.
So first become aware when you’re making assumptions, then brainstorm what would be the most appropriate experiment to put assumptions to the test and in the end, have a set of metrics that will guide you into the right direction.
Examples of actionable metrics in a personal life:
How you should measure your success in life? Compare…
- Your current metrics on different life areas
- Your past metrics on different life areas (past month, year etc.)
- Don't compare yourself to others too much (only healthy competition is okay I guess)
From time to time, it makes sense to go for a random experience, especially for things where you assume you’ve found the fit that work best for you. Because sometimes a completely new experience opens a whole new world to you, a world you didn’t know even existed.
What you think you like and what you actually like are two different things. That’s why it always makes sense to go for a rich life experience and try new things when you get the opportunity to do so.
An example would be considering your favorite dish. You’ve tried many different foods in the past and now you know that you like pasta Bolognese the most. Then you travel to a completely new place and they have your favorite dish on the menu and a dish you’ve never eaten before, but it’s their bestseller.
In the same way, I encourage you to try different sports, investments, get to know different cultures, life settings, read things you never read before, try new hobbies, and so on. Sometimes do it strategically by employing the search mode, other times do it when the opportunity pops up, and sometimes just go proactively for a random experience.
You will never know until you try and you will never know if you always stick to the same things.
For some of your assumptions, especially in business, you may need a professional scientific approach to testing assumptions and employing different research techniques like interviews, surveys, split testing, card sorting, contextual inquiry, mental models, different types of analysis and many other similar research techniques.
Scientists use these techniques in their daily work to better understand the world, and there is no reason why you wouldn’t use them in your personal life while keeping the same goal in mind.
You can use these techniques to test your (business) ideas, assess different investment opportunities, when you analyze your environment and its paradigms, when you study people’s behavior and in many other cases. Keep your mind open and use different tools at your disposal when an assumption needs to be tested.
Life changes and so testing assumptions never ends
No matter how experienced you get, there are always errors in your subjective interpretation of reality. The fast-changing world contributes to that even more. Even if you could reach objective reality in a certain moment, an error would occur the next second. Because the world is constantly changing. And it’s changing faster and faster.
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
That’s why you constantly need to keep testing your assumptions. You have to see life as a playground, where you have to test what works and what doesn’t. Based on your findings, you have to constantly adjust your life strategy and actions.
That’s why the search mode is so important. That’s why regular reflections are mandatory. That’s why you have to adjust your course of action and how you will get to your goal on a bi-weekly basis, if not even more frequently. That’s how you stay lean and agile.
Don’t just assume. Experiment and validate. Only then take action.