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5 Thought Experiments That Might Change Your Life

January 22nd, 2009 · 18 comments

What if… Deep in Thought

I’m a fan of thought experiments. Sometimes they’re annoying, but other times they can help you sift through that heap of assumptions that sloshes around your brain and guides a lot of your behavior. In today’s post, I want to offer five thought experiments that yielded, at least for me, some interesting insights. Give them some thought. They might catch you in just the right way. Or not. But at the very least, they’ll provide you with some excellent cocktail party conversation.

Depending on popular demand, I can later share my own answers to the conundrums below…

5 Thought Experiments That Might Change Your Life

  1. A mad scientist attaches a probe to your brain. If you become bored or tired while working it delivers a painful shock. If you had to stay with your current job or school, how would your work schedule change? What habits would you lose? What habits would you gain? What’s stopping you from working that way now?
  2. The president of your college delivers some shocking news: your grades, awards, and activities at school have become classified. Upon graduation, when interviewing for jobs, you’ll only be allowed to mention whether you were an “A and B” student, a “B and C” student, or a “C and below” student. Everything else is off limits. What does the rest of your college career look like? What would really happen if you lived this way even if your record wasn’t classified? Would certain post-grad opportunities be off the table?
  3. You make a deal with a eccentric philanthropist: you can take any job you want, but your salary will come from him and will be determined, entirely, by your average level of happiness. Where would you try to setup interviews? Does this match your current career wish list?
  4. Bill Gates, bored after recently stepping down at Microsoft, decides to offer you $1,000,000 if you can maintain an ‘A’ average in the upcoming fall semester. Here’s the catch: you’re not allowed to study more than 8 hours a week outside of the classroom. What would you do? Would you give up and say it’s impossible? Or, with the right planning, do you think you could make it work? If so, what would happen if you lived every semester that way?
  5. Due to a complicated inheritance, you’ll receive $100,000 a year, but, in exchange, you’re not allowed to have a job. What would your lifestyle be like? If you didn’t have this inheritance, what career path, available to you now, would get you closest to this lifestyle? Is this a career path you’re considering? If not, why not?

Did any of these thought experiments trigger an insight in you?

(Photo by JasonRogers)

18 thoughts on “5 Thought Experiments That Might Change Your Life

  1. David Pierce says:

    #2 is a favorite, and one I’ve heard something similar to before. It’s fascinating to think about- how much would it change if, instead of being a “Straight-A” student, you were an “A and B” student?

    They’re both something to be proud of, and in my experience either one opens an awful lot of doors for you. Changing your mindset would free up both mental space and physical time, and might make you more productive and useful. Interesting stuff.

    And boy, do I wish #3 was real. That would be the LIFE.

  2. Albert says:

    These are some great ideas for getting new perspectives on your situation. Another technique that I found useful was the “blank slate method”, where you try to identify and eliminate incorrect assumptions you have about a certain situation.

  3. Wow. These thought questions are awesome! I will definitely share with my friends.

    Btw, I bought “How to Win at College” for my sister who is heading to college…hopefully she cracks it open :o)

  4. Dave says:

    I thought about #1 a bit.

    In this case, we would have to always change things around to make things interesting for ourselves. What if one gets bored with the act of “changing things around?”

    Without boredom, it’s harder to feel or experience the excitement of trying new things.

    I may not be completely understanding what you’re envisioning. What I feel right now is that limiting boredom (not completely eliminating it or associating it with pain) may yield better results.

  5. #4 is interesting. You would need to be so much more creative, wow love to think about.
    Good experiments, got more?

  6. I really like these thought experiments. I don’t even think they have to be fantasies either. Take #4 for example. If you could reduce study time to only 8 hours a week, you could spend the rest of the week working on a Big Project. Working on a big project will give you a better chance at earning a higher income in the future. Maybe you could actually get that 1,000,000 (but not from Bill Gates).

  7. Study Hacks says:

    I really like these thought experiments. I don’t even think they have to be fantasies either. Take #4 for example. If you could reduce study time to only 8 hours a week, you could spend the rest of the week working on a Big Project. Working on a big project will give you a better chance at earning a higher income in the future. Maybe you could actually get that 1,000,000 (but not from Bill Gates).

    Indeed. What’s interesting is thinking what would you do to try to accomplish this goal. With a million dollars on the line, you’d probably have elaborately detailed study systems, constructed to eliminate every wasted minute of work. You would also likely be obsessive about getting your energy high before the timer started for the day, etc.

    All of these ideas, of course, could be applied, as you say, right now, even without the reward, and the benefits would still be huge.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    I may not be completely understanding what you’re envisioning. What I feel right now is that limiting boredom (not completely eliminating it or associating it with pain) may yield better results.

    This is a really good insight. I also think the definition of “boredom” becomes quite important here. When I thought through this experiment I started to draw a distinction between being “bored” in the shortterm (i.e., 3 hours into a 5 hour marathon of writing), and bored in the longterm (i.e., not caring about the thing you are working on.)

  9. With respect to the boredom referred to in thought experiment 1, the only interesting case is dealing with boredom in the short term. Long term boredom gives a clear indication that you’re doing the wrong kind of work–that’s easy. On the other hand, short term boredom forces you to identify what’s boring about what you do and to deconstruct why you find it boring and then come up with creative ways to infuse excitement into those boring parts of your work.

  10. Niya says:

    These are amazing! I’m really affected by 4 and 1. But especially 4. WOW.

    What were your thoughts and answers?

  11. Maureen says:

    I really enjoyed thinking about these thought experiments.

    Especially #1 and #4. For #1, after thinking about in light of these questions, I realize there is a lot more I could be doing at work as I am frequently bored (but get paid well).

    For #4, I am starting to realize it’s now the amt of time you work at something, it’s how effectively you use the time you have. You questions make me think students are generally given all the time we need, it’s just how they use the time. Partially true but for courses like biology where a lot of memorization is required it seems a lot of hours is required. Do you agree?

  12. Adam says:

    unless you’re a cheater or a savant, 4. is impossible. even with the advice on this site, 8 hours a week in addition to class is not possible. even if I were to spend 1 hour outside of class for each hour in class, that would leave me 2 hours in the week to finish 5 assignments.

    not possible.

  13. Mike says:

    Adam, I think you’re completely missing the point. First of all, it is possible. Second of all, what does the last part of your comment even mean?

    Another thing – eight is just an arbitrary number. I’m sure all of us could change the way we study so that we become more efficient, and therefore have more time to explore other things. This is the point of the thought question.

  14. Tip says:

    #1 is awesome, kind of hilarious – what if some one just got so stressed out from the pressure to be happy or else get shocked that he continually got shocked?

  15. Matt says:

    Thought experiment #6:

    If you think #4 is really possible, consider this:
    a. you are in a useless major
    b. you go to a bullshit university
    c. you are Einstein

    … you probably aren’t Einstein…

  16. Brian says:

    if i had to pick one out of those five experiment, I would say four, it really Interest me, because of the way that mansion $1,000.000 that is coming from Bill Gate pocket. why his the one that alway have to be the astute. why not someone do it for they own experiment in life, i mean lets face it, if someone figure it out, there are the one that helping their own future. if it was me, i would first choose the easiest class that i have a lot of intelligently in. then i would only pick one class for that semester. because then i can focus on what I’m studying and easily memorize them. but if i had to this for all my semester, then i would diffidently say “Yes”, under one condition; that i receive $1,000,000 for each semester. because in that case i use the money to start some business, and i get to continue my major.

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