Prototyping your Life

Years ago, I read an interview with Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, in which he mentioned that human beings are very bad predictors of what makes them happy.

That shocked me.

So when I think that buying that house, marrying that person, succeeding in my career, and all those other things that I’m sure are going to make my life better… am I probably wrong??

According to Professor Gilbert’s research, yes. It’s probably not going to make me happier or, at least, not as much as I think.

But, you know what? When I think about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that I’ve already experienced this phenomenon. My first university degree didn’t make me as happy as I had predicted. And the same thing happened with certain relationships, things I’ve bought, places I’ve visited; the list goes on and on.

But the opposite is also true: certain things that I didn’t expect to fulfill me have surprised me in terms of how happy they made me.

After giving it a little bit of thought, I have to agree with Professor Gilbert. And ever since I read about his work, I’ve been giving more attention to my predictions and those of the people around me (family, friends, clients), and his observations have been confirmed again and again.

Years later, I read about the Agile methodology. For those not familiar with it, this methodology is a particular approach to project management that is utilized in software development and has also been adapted for product creation. I mention this methodology here because it’s based on the fact that human beings are bad at predicting the effect that a product, feature, or marketing strategy is going to have in the public. It’s reasonable to assume that when a group of experts think that a certain feature in a product is going to make people crazy about it, they’re probably wrong. When people discuss in a room for hours the best text for the ad that will give the company lots of income, they’re probably wrong.

One of the messages that this methodology sends to companies is that they’re wasting a lot of resources trying to predict what’s going to be better for their product or strategy.

This is where the message coincides with the one that Professor Gilbert preaches. We also waste a lot of our personal resources (time, effort, money, emotions) pursuing things that won’t improve our life.

What can you do then, if you (as any other human being) are a bad predictor?

Here’s where I take one of the main ideas of the Agile methodology and apply it to my personal life:

Don’t trust your thoughts about how something or someone is going to make you feel.

Try to get the experience of it as soon as possible.

Instead of waiting for a long time, spending a lot of money, dedicating a lot of energy to get something, try to have the experience earlier, using as few resources as possible.

How do you do that?


The prefix prot-, or proto-, comes from Greek and has a basic meaning of “first in time” or “first formed.” A prototype is someone or something that serves as a model or inspiration for that which comes later.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a prototype is “a first full-scale and usually functional form of a new type or design of a construction (such as an airplane).”

To applied it to life, I would adapt the definition as such:

a prototype is a first and functional experience that will give you a vision of the direction in which you’re heading.

In sum, a prototype will give you a first experience. If you like it, go ahead and “design” another prototype in the same direction. If you don’t like the experience, change direction.

Here are a few examples of the prototype principle applied to life:

If there’s a car you want to buy, test drive it first (the first prototype). If you like it, try to rent it for a few days (second prototype).

Do you think that moving to a new town or neighborhood will improve your life? Stay in a hotel or Airbnb for a few days and see how it feels. If you love it, do the same for a few weeks or months. If you still like it, consider renting an apartment or house for one year before buying anything.

Is there a type of job that you think will make you happy? Talk with someone who is working in that field and ask them questions: what is great about the job, what is not so great, surprises they’ve encountered, and any advice they have. See if you can witness (shadow) someone who is doing that job for a day or two. Volunteer to do it for a few weeks.

Get the idea?

Professor Gilbert believes that talking with someone who has already had the experience (who already owns the car, lives in the neighborhood, or has the job you want) is the best way to predict whether something is going to make you happy or not. If they like it, we’re probably going to like it to. Apparently, we’re not so different as we think we are, at least not in terms of what makes us happy. If you want to know more, read his book “Stumbling on Happiness.” It’s a great book.

So, I invite you to play with this concept. Anytime you want to do something in your life that you think will make you happy but will require a big investment (in terms of time, money, and/or energy), ask yourself:

  • How can I get a sample of the final experience now?
  • How can I do it using 10% or less of the money I would have to pay to have the final result?

And then build your prototype experience.

Happy testing!