Blank Slate Moments

Science prides itself on being able to validate hypothesis with controlled experiments. Take two subjects, vary only a single variable between them, whatever difference you generate must owe to that distinction. If only life were that easy.

Instead, life is full of confounding variables. We build theories for our lives the best way we can, but those are corrupted somewhat by hidden variables. What little we think we know about ourselves, we probably know less.

That’s why I’m always interested in blank slate moments. These are moments where there is an abrupt change of many different variables. They don’t have the precision of a controlled experiment, but they give you a chance to eliminate much of the noise.

Travel as a Blank Slate

I lived for almost a year in France, a few years ago. No one from my old life came with me, so for eleven months every relationship and friendship I had was a blank slate. Even the language and culture were different so I had to relearn how I communicated with other people.

I remember at one point getting in a fight with a girl I was dating. Had it not been in French, it would have been identical to one I had had back home. Everything else was different, except for me. I was creating the situation, even if I didn’t yet know how.

Job Changes as a Blank Slate

A good friend of mine recently switched offices. This time, instead of noticing the recurring constants, he noticed the changes. At his old job he had been a junior employee. While smart and competent, his early trainee period set his first impression with many of his colleagues of being the newbie.

When he switched jobs, the impression was radically different. Now he’s one of the most sought-after employees in the office, with perks and pay that are unusual for someone of his experience. The old environment was holding him back, but it took a blank slate moment for him to realize it.

Entrepreneurial Blank Slates

I’ve been blogging and selling ebooks/courses for over seven years now. I’m sure if I wanted to write a book about how to do it, I could (I have zero desire to, but that’s another matter). In my head, I’ve convinced myself that I know a lot about it.

But where are my blank slate moments? Almost every moment of this blog was built on the previous one. A/B testing can test details, but you can’t split test your strategy. How can I be so convinced I’m right?

Admittedly, I’m probably wrong about many of the things I’m convinced are true. The problem is I don’t know which ones.

When I started Learning on Steroids, I became convinced that monthly subscriptions were a better business model for me than static product sales. But my newer data seems to cast doubt on that theory. It might be that Learning on Steroids was successful simply because of the product, and the subscription model was inconsequential.

The Cost of Blank Slates

When I look over the long-term trajectory of my life, blank slate moments were the inflection points in many areas. The sudden changes allowed me to realize the truth of a situation and break out of stagnation.

Blank slate moments are most useful when they’re a temporary deviation of an ongoing trend. Living in France taught me about where I was failing in my relationships because every variable changed but me. However, had I changed cities every three months, the frequent change would itself be a kind of variable that stays constant. In that hypothetical possibility, I might have deduced that my fight wasn’t my fault, but the fault of moving around so much.

Clearly generating endless blank slate moments in the same way isn’t helpful. Blank slates hamper progress—how could you possibly get any insight into what it takes to start a successful business if you kept switching businesses every week. Worse, when the way the blank slate is generated is itself recurring, it introduces a new variable which perverts the data.

Positive blank slates are minimally disruptive, but they provide maximal information by quickly randomizing many of the otherwise confounding variables.

Generating Positive Blank Slates

I’ve thought a lot about how I can generate positive blank slates in my life. Here’s some ideas I’ve come up with:

  1. Relocation. Travel, on its own, has only been minimally useful for me. To me, living in a new place long enough that you invest in a normal life there seems to have the best impact. The challenge is balancing the depth that allows for a true blank slate without creating a huge disruption in your life.
  2. Short-term experiments. Experiments can be more controlled than a blank slate. When you just switch one variable, you get more precise information than when you change hundreds of them. I’ve found that short-term experiments, however, often limit you in the kinds of things you can change, so you test easy-to-change variables instead of the ones that might actually generate insight.
  3. Orienting Projects. My MIT Challenge was a blank slate in a lot of ways, as my working life changed very abruptly. Completing it reminded me that physical travel isn’t the only way to cause a blank slate.

I haven’t built a complete framework for pursuing blank slate moments yet. However, a good rule of thumb seems to be always engaging in some kind of blank slate, especially if you can leverage the change to be useful instead of disruptive.

Ultimately I’ve found blank slate moments more useful, not as a tool to learn more about yourself or the world, but as a tool to weed out the convictions you have that might be wrong.

  • Dhruv Kar

    Hey Scott,

    Great post. Definitely experienced blank slate moments from relocation myself (moving to China for a year).
    The problem I experienced was assimilating and making permanent the gained insights, once I was back.
    I’ve been back for about 9 months, and I’ve seen myself return to my pre-China self in terms of habits, work ethic, expectations, etc.
    Change IS constant, and habit DOES (help) make permanent.
    Have insights from blank slate experiences stayed with you over the long run?

  • bunyon

    How does this apply to programming?

  • Jack

    Very interesting Scott H Young!

  • Samuel

    This was an amazing post, Scott.

    It made me realize why one actually gets to know oneself better when relocating/living in a new place/traveling. Your explanation was spot on.


  • dag

    Sincere post, Scott. I wonder whether the three final points or ‘conclusions’ are ordered in order of importance. I also wonder whether we are capable or not of realising when we do need a new blank slate, letting alone how to seize them…

  • Jamie Maltman

    I accidentally experienced this in the very short term this weekend. A bout of food poisoning left me in my room all day, thankfully with my wife bringing me juice. With my head spinning I sometimes felt good enough to read on my phone or my book, but not enough to sit up. And other times just to lie there with eyes closed and reflect, come up with ideas, and visualize parts of the novel I’m writing.

    Wouldn’t recommend it, but a useful blank slate moment for me.

  • Kurt

    I’m going through an involuntary blank slate period. Fractured a bone in my foot and haven’t been able to put any weight on it for the last 6 weeks. Still have probably another month or two before I can walk and then some rehab to get strength and flexibility back. But the forced time off gives me a chance to evaluate goals and see what I may have been pursuing that wasn’t really that important. Am looking forward to a new perspective 🙂

  • Jessie

    Scott, I just wanted to thank you for this insightful post. It came at just the right time last year as I was writing an essay to apply for an exchange at the University of Pennsylvania. The concept of the blank slate perfectly described my goals for exchange, so I was inspired to use this concept as the theme of my essay, which I’ve now shared here: http://dailypennings.blogspot….

  • Meredith

    Attempting to summarize and redigest for you:

    Blank slate moments are valuable because they literally provide space in which we can thoroughly reevaluate our lives, but self-analysis can become too time-consuming.

    You say you haven’t come up with a “framework” for pursuing blank-slate moments, but I think the value of the “blank slate moment” concept lies in the reminder to not stagnate, and to lazily step very far back in an infinitely possible number of directions for reevaluation.