Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned by Kenneth Stanley, Joel Lehman

Summary

  1. This book is about questioning the value of objectives, particularly when it is something audacious and innovative

Key Takeaways

  1. Found that algorithms performed most interestingly without an explicit objective function and argues the same holds true for life
  2. Many objectives are admirable, but we should question their dominance in our culture. Sometimes it may be better to surrender.
  3. Interestingly, the most ambitious goals may be best reached without objectives. It’s useful to think of achievement as a process of discovery. Stepping stones are portals to the next level of possibility.
  4. Ambitious goals are deceptive, so the next stepping stone to get to the final end state are unclear. The greatest achievements are less likely when they have objectives, so the optimal path for these great achievements is to have no objective at all as relevant stepping stones aren’t obvious and would be missed if too focused on the objective – the stepping stone doesn’t resemble the final product. In other words, no matter how tempting it is to believe in it, the distant objective cannot guide you to itself – it is the ultimate false compass
  5. Sometimes the best way to achieve something great is to stop trying to achieve a particular great thing. In other words, greatness is possible if you are willing to stop demanding what greatness should be…We’re missing out on a lot by clinging to objectives
  6. The genius of the Wright brothers wasn’t to invent every necessary component from flight from scratch, it was to recognize that we were only a stepping stone away from flight given past innovations. Great invention is defined by the realization that the prerequisites are in place, laid before us by predecessors with entirely unrelated ambitions, just waiting to be combined and enhanced. The flash of insight is seeing the bridge to the next stepping stone by building from the old ones. And the story of those stepping stones is not a story of intentional objective-driven building, one piece at at time towards some distant uber-invention as conceived by an overarching plan. On the contrary, just like in natural evolution and just like in Picbreeder, the stepping stones are laid in their own context for their own independent reasons, not because a visionary foresaw their role in future greatness
  7. Unstructured play is vital for kids and adults – you have the right to pivot and follow your passions. The point is that novelty can often act as a stepping stone detector because anything novel is a potential stepping stone to something even more novel. In other words, novelty is a rough shortcut for identifying interestingness: interesting ideas are those that open up new possibilities. And while it might sound wishy-washy to go looking for “interesting” things, interestingness is a surprisingly deep and important concept
  8. Novelty search accumulates information well, moves naturally from simple to complex
  9. often possible to achieve more by not trying to achieve it
  10. Nothing can reliably reach target objectives. We can find something amazing, we just can’t say what those somethings are. Great discoveries are possible if they’re left undefined…The strange paradox, where trying is a curse and not a blessing, sets the stage for a more realistic understanding of what is achievable and how. It means that ambitious goals can’t be reliably achieved by trying – unless they are one stepping stone away, where they come within reach. Otherwise, the only choice that remains is not trying. And while this treasure-hunting approach will not ensure reaching any particular objective, what it will do is accumulate stepping stones that lead to unfamiliar places. The treasure hunter is an opportunistic explorer – searching for anything and everything of value, without a care for what might be found. To be a treasure hunter, you have to collect as many stepping stones as you can, because you never know which one might lead somewhere valuable
  11. The best way to harness the power of a group of people in the non-objective world isn’t through brainstorming sessions or meetings or big ambitious projects. It’s not about sitting down and coming to a consensus on what to do. That’s not the treasure hunter – consensus is exactly the cultural tendency that we need to scale. We don’t want “Top 40” lists where everyone tries to agree what the best songs are, nor “design by committee” where any interesting vision for a new product is watered  down by consensus. No, the way to unleash the treasure hunter is to actually through separating people from each other, like in Picbreeder, where people only interact by taking off from where someone else left off. While many participants in such a treasure-hunting system might arrive with their own personal objectives, the system as a whole ends up lacking a unified objective because people’s objectives differ…With instantaneous global communication, it becomes easier than ever to organize people all over the world to build off each other’s creations
  12. Having no plan might be the best plan – explore widely without objectives
  13. When there is no destination, there can’t be a right path. Instead of judging every activity for its potential to succeed, we should judge our projects for their potential to spawn more projects…So, if you’re wondering how to escape the myth of the objective, just do things because they’re interesting
  14. To achieve our highest goals, we must be willing to abandon them
  15. Search is at its most awesome when it has no unified objective
  16. Perhaps then it would make sense sometimes to reward maximal disagreement instead of agreement. It’s possible that anti-consensus may be more interesting than bland agreement. After all, attracting a unanimous vote in science could be a sign of nothing more than echoing the status quo. If you’re doing whatever is hot and parrot the right buzzwords, you might be able to attract wide support. On the other hand, an interesting idea is likely to split votes. At the border between our present knowledge and the unknown are questions whose answers remain uncertain. That’s why the opinions of experts should diverge in such uncharted territory. It’s in the wild borderland between the known and the unknown that we should want our greatest minds probing, rather than within the comfortable vacation-spot of maximal consensus. Just think, which project is likely more revolutionary, one that receives, excellent, excellent, poor, poor, or the one that receives excellent, excellent, excellent, excellent? Splitting experts may be more of an achievement than unifying them
  17. If you’re looking to invest in visionaries, find those who wander in nearby shadows
  18. The successful inventor asks where we can get from here rather than how ewe can get there
  19. Competition should play a secondary role to creativity
  20. Natural evolution can be seen as novelty-generating search with local competition…A key insight from thinking non-objectively in this chapter is that although evolution can be seen as a competition, out-competing other creatures on the “objective” of surviving and reproducing is less important than escaping from competition to form new niches.

What I got out of it

  1. The idea of being a curious explorer, following and optimizing for novelty and interestingness strikes me deeply. Importantly, this is for ambitious, audacious ideas and not for to-do lists or day to day life. You have to concede control of the final destination. There is risk in this, but the reward is worthwhile

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