How One Experiment Can Make You Famous


Pezzi di vita che diventano viaggio  (Far East Film Festival 10 - 2008)I’m fascinated with the movie Super Size Me. The idea of eating nothing but McDonald’s food for an entire month just to see what happens instantly piqued my curiosity. But what I didn’t realize while I was watching it was how good and versatile the general idea of it is.

At its core, the movie is about someone who took an idea, turned it into a project and reported the results. You can take that format and fit it into so many different areas. In fact, many people have already done that successfully. And if you know what you’re doing, you can too.

Start of the Long-Term Experiment

I think of Super Size Me as the start of a small, new trend that I like to call the “long-term experiment”. It’s basically about using yourself as a guinea pig for an experiment or project conducted over a period of time longer than one month. It has very little scientific purpose other than just figuring out what would happen.

One example of this trend is the story of One Red Paperclip. Kyle MacDonald decided to see how long it would take him to trade-up from only one red paperclip to a house using sites like Craigslist.  It took him about one year before he finally ended up owning a two-storey farmhouse in Saskatchewan.

Similarly, Julie Powell blogged about cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She gave herself one year to complete all 524 recipes. She soon gained a huge following that evolved into a book and later a movie. All that from one simple idea.

Anyone Can Do It

This general idea has been around for awhile. Several books were written just a few years before Super Size Me where the writers lived as members of the working poor. There’s even a book by Jack London from 1903 called The People of the Abyss detailing his experiences living as a poor urban Londoner.

But even though Super Size Me wasn’t the first, I feel it did popularize it. It seems as if people are doing experiments more now than ever. The biggest reason is probably because anyone can do it. You don’t need to be anyone famous or have a lot of resources backing you up.

For example, Julie Powell and the guy behind One Red Paperclip weren’t famous before they started their experiments. Even recently I read about a school teacher called Mrs. Q. who got nationwide attention by blogging about the school lunches she ate every day for a year.

There seems to be a similar template all these experimenters use. I’ve been able to break down what they do into four steps:

1. Pick an idea that inspires or creates curiosity

These ideas caught so much attention because they were inspiring, created curiosity or both. When I watched Super Size Me, I wanted to know what the end result would be. Would it destroy his health; would he have to stop? I wanted to know.

I felt more inspired by Julie Powell’s story. Tackling such a wide selection of recipes and finishing them off in one year is a huge undertaking. I found myself rooting for her by the end and I wanted to see her succeed. And when she did, I felt uplifted.

2. Create your rules

Every one of these long-term experiments had a set list of rules. Morgan Spurlock had a long list of eating behaviors he set for himself in Super Size Me. One Red Paperclip made it an explicit goal of trading up to a house.

Most seem to have set time limits to either reach a goal or see how long they can endure the process. Rules might be there to give structure and order to the experiment. Whatever the reasons behind it, they seem to establish the rules early and make it clear to their audience.

3. Document your progress

Most of these experiments used something to document how the project is progressing. Many like Julie Powell and Mrs. Q used a blog to update what was going on. Others like Morgan Spurlock used a video camera.

There were several long-term experiments whose sole purpose was writing a book. No blog or video was used. However, these were done by established writers. They didn’t need any buzz to get attention since their publication was far more likely. So unless you’re already an established writer, it’s better to document your progress through a blog or vlog.

4. Write a book or do a movie about it

One thing I find interesting about all these projects is that there was always a book written afterwards. Every single one of the experiments ended as a book. Even Super Size Me is being adapted into a comic book. Writing a book seems like a logical conclusion. After a full year documenting your experiment through your blog, you’ll have plenty of material to work with.

We’re All Experimenters Now

I still find it amazing how someone cooking Julia Child’s recipes, trading a paperclip or eating school lunches can make such an impact. There are many others out there too that I didn’t get a chance to mention such as The Happiness Project or Scratch Beginnings. I’m also sure we’ll see more in the future. It makes me wonder just where this trend will go.

Were you inspired or curious about any of these projects? Would you do any of these experiments?
photo credit: pierofix

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  1. Documenting experiments are really popular for bloggers these days. It saves us the time and energy by letting someone else try an experiment first.

  2. My current life is pretty much an experiment. What I can say is that although what the red paperclip guy and the Julia Childs lady were doing was very interesting to outsiders as well as undoubtedly themselves, there was probably a lot of stress and struggle involved. You don’t get from a paperclip to a house in one year without hardship. I think you have to keep the experiement going for long enough to ensure that the end result is what you want, rather than giving up too early.

  3. This makes me think about the things that people love doing and how they can earn a living out of that experiment. Great thing is that the blog will serve as a record already of the steps that one has undertaken from where he was to where he is.

  4. I have never been so tempted to do one of those crazy “not in a million years” type things that you always sort of fantasize about as I was when I finished reading this post.

    You just got yourself a new subscriber.

  5. I like #1 the best. I love the topic of inspiration! I try to inspire people in all of my videos on my blog. It’s fun.

    But they key here, is to just DO IT! So many of us have that awesome idea or plan, but so few of us actually take the step or make the commitment. So a good idea goes to waste.

    If you have something great – then you should by all means, do it! :)

  6. I’m not sure I’ll ever come up with that genius idea. I always look at other’s ideas and think “Dang! Why didn’t I come up with that!?” But maybe one day I’ll think of something no one else has!

  7. I love experiment stories. I seem to read a lot of books/blogs that revolve around experiments. Some of my other favorites are when Nina Sankovitch read a book a day for an entire year, when A.J. Jacobs read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, or the Uniform Project when a women wore the same dress (styled differently) for an entire year and raised money for charity. I also have a book on my shelf of a guy who is going to stop and drink a beer at ever irish pub that is named McCarthy in Ireland that I’m super excited for. :)

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