25 Lessons From Research That Can Improve Your Life
October 29, 2017
As a professor, I spend a lot of time doing research—coming up with a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, analyzing data, and writing up manuscripts. But over the years, I have realized that many lessons from research can actually change your life for the better. Here are 25 lessons I have learned:
- Use the scientific method. Are you trying to improve something in your life? Not sure what direction to go with something? Use the scientific method. Start with a hypothesis or educated guess. Then conduct an experiment—change one thing in your life while keeping everything else the same. Keep track of what happens. Revise your hypothesis if necessary. Wash, rinse, repeat.
- Collaboration is key. You can do research by yourself, but it’s a lot more effective (and fun) if you have a group of people working together. In the same way, life works a lot better when you are doing it with other people.
- Not everything is generalizable. In research, you have to take into consideration the sample that participated in the study. For example, if the sample was 100% White male adults, the findings may not apply to African American female adolescents. In the same way, we often look to others for information on how to live our lives. But not everything is generalizable. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another person.
- Get used to criticism. No matter how great your research study is, there is someone out there who will think it is absolute crap. But you can’t let negative feedback take you off course. It’s just part of the game. In the same way, no matter what choices you make in life, people will criticize you. You can’t let the criticism of other people knock you off course.
- Be humble. It’s okay to make conclusions from your research, but it’s important to hold your conclusions with humility. Future research may cause you to revise your conclusions. In the same way, hold your beliefs and convictions with humility. Be open to future experiences that may cause you to revise your views.
- Research (and life) is an iterative process. In research, you don’t get to the truth right away. Each study you conduct; you get a piece of the puzzle. Little by little, and over time, you get closer to the truth. In the same way, life is an iterative process. You don’t figure it out right away. Little by little, experience by experience, you begin to figure out who you are and what you were put on earth to do.
- Research is a slow process. Research takes a long time. You have to come up with the idea for a study, plan the study, collect data, analyze data, write the paper, submit for publication, revise and resubmit, etc. It can take over a year for a project to get done. In a similar way, progress in any area of life is a long, slow process. It takes time. Be patient with yourself.
- Be open to the unexpected. Sometimes in research, you find something in your study that is unexpected. You might get frustrated at first (because your hypothesis wasn’t supported), but if you are open to the new direction, your research finding could lead you to something that is really cool. In the same way, sometimes life doesn’t work out like you expect it. You can be grumpy and stomp your feet, but if you are open to the new direction, there could be something cool in the unexpected.
- Change one thing at a time. If you are conducting an experiment, you only want to change one thing at a time. That way, if you see changes in your experiment, you know what caused the change. If you change a bunch of things at once, you don’t know what caused the change. In the same way, in your life, it’s good to change one thing at a time. Be systematic about improving your life.
- Be Coca-Cola or Pepsi. When considering a research program, it’s good to pick an area that you can be the best at (or at least in the top 2). Otherwise, you can get lost in the shuffle. In the same way, in your life or business, it’s good to specialize so you can be the “go-to” person in your field. Implement the blue ocean strategy to make competition irrelevant.
- Consider the impact. In research, publishing at high impact journals is important because you will get higher readership and press. One publication in a high impact journal can be better than five publications in crappy journals. Similarly, when you are considering a direction to take in life, think about the impact. What influence will your decision or actions have on others? Focus your energy on activities that are high impact.
- Never do anything for a single purpose. My graduate school advisor recommended that I design my thesis and dissertation projects in such a way so that they were likely to result in publications. He had similar advice if I had to write a paper for class—pick a topic that could get published. In this way, I could capitalize on my effort. In life, see if you can plan your activities so that you can kill two (or three) birds with one stone.
- Your data have a story to tell. Sometimes your hypothesis doesn’t work out. You’re looking at your data trying to make sense of what you found. You may get frustrated and want to throw out the study and start over. But if you stick with it, you can usually find a story or thread that ties everything together. In the same way, sometimes life doesn’t work out like you expected. Maybe a bunch of random things are happening, and you can’t make sense of it. Give it some time. If you take your time and consider what has happened, you may find that your life has meaning and a story to tell.
- Do good work, but work fast. In order to be successful at research, you have to do high quality work. But it’s also important to work fast, and get a lot of projects done. In life, there is a balance as well. You want your life to be of high quality. You want to do good work, find a good life partner, behave with integrity, etc. On the other hand, if your standards are way too high (i.e., you are perfectionistic), you won’t get much done. Find the balance.
- Dissemination is key. It’s important to get your research findings out to the public so that people can use them. We don’t conduct research to have the findings sit in a file drawer somewhere. In the same way, education is important, but you have to apply what you are learning to your life. Don’t let it just sit in your head. Put it to good use.
- Money isn’t everything, but it helps. Grant funding can be incredibly helpful in order to do research that has high impact. It’s not everything, but it helps. Similarly, in life, money isn’t everything, but it helps. Above $70,000/year, money isn’t strongly correlated with happiness. But if you are living around the poverty line, things can get pretty stressful.
- Check your ego at the door. Humility is key in research. Humility helps you to ask good questions and learn from your mistakes. Having too big of an ego actually makes you a less effective researcher, because you aren’t open to the limitations of your ideas. It’s the same thing in life. If you are humble and open to your limitations, things will go better for you.
- Model the process. When I teach students how to do research, I model the process. I don’t just tell them what to do, I do what I want them to do and let them work with me. In the same way, when you are teaching or instructing (e.g., parenting, mentoring, advising), don’t just talk. Let them see your example.
- Get different perspectives. One benefit of doing research in a team is that you get a variety of perspectives on your project. This improves the quality of your research project in the long run. It’s especially important to get perspectives from people who are different from you, because they are able to point out flaws or limitations in your research that you aren’t aware of. In the same way, when working toward something in your life, get a variety of perspectives. Seek out people who disagree with you.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt. In research, some people are very protective and territorial with their ideas. This usually doesn’t work out too well, because it squelches collaboration and the spread of ideas. Instead, it’s a better strategy to give people the benefit of the doubt. If they aren’t a good collaborator, you can move on. In the same way, it’s good to give people the benefit of the doubt at first. If they prove to be untrustworthy, move on from the relationship. But be open at first.
- Something for you, something for me. When I entered graduate school, I negotiated with my research advisor about the topic of my thesis and dissertation. It had to be something that I was passionate about, but also something that he was interested in and knew something about. In the same way, when you are trying to develop a partnership or relationship, it works best if both parties gain something from the relationship. Search for the win-win.
- You don’t know what you don’t know. Beginning researchers in training often don’t have a clue about how to start a thesis or dissertation project. So when I’m working with a beginner, I walk through every step in detail. In a similar way, for just about anything you are trying to do in life, there are experts you can seek out to help you. Don’t stumble along on your own—read a book, take a class, or get a coach.
- Invest early. When mentoring graduate students on their research, I spend a lot of time directing and correcting their early research projects and manuscripts. In this way, I get them going on the right track, and then later on they usually continue in a similar direction independently. Similarly, if you really want to do something in life (e.g., learn a language, play a sport), it’s good to get started early. In parenting, heavily invest in the early years.
- Meet regularly. I meet with each of my graduate students each week for one hour. This keeps them going and on track. In the same way, meet with the people you are working with regularly. Spend quality time with the people you care about (e.g., family and friends) on a regular basis. Check in with yourself regularly.
- Assessment is key. In research, having reliable and valid measures is incredibly important. You need to know that you are accurately measuring what you are trying to measure. In the same way, if you want to change something in your life, start by measuring it. A study on marriage counseling found that about 25% of improvement was due to a thorough assessment and feedback process. In order to know where you need to go, you have to know where you are at.
Which of these 25 lessons from research could you apply to your life today?
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