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Expand, Contract, Experiment, Iterate | in over your head

October 18, 2010

Expand, Contract, Experiment, Iterate

Xeni Jardin put up a great slide in a presentation I saw at MIMA, seen at right.

Those four words represent a lot about life, growth, business and strength. Put those four words together and you have a continuous, cyclical process for how to try new things and what to do once you have.

Chris and I have been thinking a lot about this pattern recently for the new stuff we’re writing, so I have my own version of this loop, as follows. I think of it as what happens when a child is learning to walk– after all, that’s the definition of experimentation, balance, and resisting pressures (gravity, etc.). The metaphor is fundamental and can be understood by all.

Step one is to experiment– trying something new. I’ve called this touching the burner because it is a fundamental risky act, but in all aspects of life, the small, easy experiment is what leads to the potential success. Walking eventually becomes a rote activity, but it began as a purposeful attempt at something that was previously impossible.

Practice is what happens after that. This is a combination of our old stuff and new stuff. If we learn to play the piano we are integrating new movements into old movements so they happen without us thinking about them. We increase our range of motion to include the new thing until it becomes an entirely banal part of our behaviour instead of a risky new thing.

Next we go for balance (contraction). When we do this it is an attempt at the new thing becoming a new normal that is more capable than the last. Contraction is a process where we take the new behaviour and take advantage of it, and where we bring ourselves back to a stable state.

Then, finally, it’s about starting again (iterate), trying it again to expand more. This is how we learn to move, or interact with people, or build castles or empires. It’s a fundamental act, and you need to know where you are in the cycle in order to behave properly. Once you do, though, you know which direction to take.

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