Why Greatness Cannot be Planned

Source: Myth of the Objective website, date indeterminate

Related resource: Claremont website, Jul 2015

This book shows that when you’ve got a really hard problem to solve (cancer, say, or poverty, or inequality, or obesity) it’s more practical to search for something new and interesting, not stick to what seems to move you closer to your practical goal.

A novelty-seeking search algorithm has to remember its past and avoid previous mistakes, so rewarding novelty means collecting information. Moreover, novelty-seeking goes past the simple algorithms and starts finding complex ones. 

Stanley and Lehman draw important consequences regarding policy in supporting scientific research. They argue that as a general rule, if the goal is not already “within sight”, but instead is best approached in some unknown direction, with sub-optimal culs-de-sac in between, then going “straight toward the objective” is delusory, and rewarding novelty is likely to succeed much faster.

For a scientific researcher, there is a contrast between aiming at a well-defined objective, and following an interesting lead without knowing ahead of time where it will take him.

Novelty is not the only thing that makes a result interesting. Importance is also a major consideration, either practical importance—a direct payoff to human life—or theoretical importance—a major effect on how we see reality.  This is the difference between mission-based research, and “pure” or  open-ended research. The experience with evolutionary artificial intelligence strongly supports open-ended research, which is not always easy to reconcile with mission-oriented agencies. 

DRH website, Oct 2015

Stepping stones, they argue, are more likely to be discovered through  serendipity.

And, discovery is more likely when scientists and entrepreneurs are interested in what they’re working on. That is, when the target is novelty, the researcher is simply following the path of interest. And, when we follow our path of interest, we spend more time on the problem and invest more energy in the process because we have more energy to bring to our tasks. Obstacles become challenges and results follow. 

In one study cited by the authors, almost 2/3 of people attributed their career choice to serendipity. (In a conversation with a friend just the other day, he and I agreed that our careers were a result of the both of us following what was interesting and motivating.)

If we use goals as a structure to help us think, plan and find meaning, they can help us achieve greatness. When pursuing a goal, be ready be open to new experiences, information and ways of thinking that might seem to take you in an opposite direction. If you do this, you just might find the stepping stones to the career you have always wanted, the partner of your dreams or curing cancer.


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