Optimise for Novelty and Interestingness Instead of Objectives and Outcomes
One of the most impactful books I’ve read recently is Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned (bad name for a good book). It argues that objectives can be counterproductive for ambitious ideas. It’s about innovation, but I found it applies to careers and personal growth too.
One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much is because it gave me a valid reason to prioritise novelty and exploration over objectives and output. I think about achievement an awful lot. More than most people, and far more than I should. It's exhausting. It's exhausting because it results in endless comparisons and measurements. Endless questions of whether you're doing enough, whether you are enough, whether you're on track to achieve what you want to achieve.
This book questions the value of those objectives. It allows you to think of progress as a process of discovery. It removes any guilt you might have in taking that approach. Sometimes the best way to achieve something great is to stop trying to achieve a particular great thing.
One of the things that makes the future so hard to predict is that new technologies don’t operate in silos; they’re intertwining threads that weave together in unpredictable ways. Consider Uber: for anyone to be able to call a cab from their pocket, GPS, smartphones, payments, and online rating systems needed to combine in ways that their respective inventors couldn’t have predicted.
The book uses the analogy of stepping stones scattered across a lake shrouded in mist. Peering into the distance to identify a sequence of steps to a far-off goal is not only over-ambitious but potentially harmful. Instead, we should aim to explore the next stepping stone.
The genius of the Wright brothers wasn’t to invent every necessary component for flight from scratch, it was to recognise that we were only a stepping stone away from flight given past innovations.
“We choose to go to the Moon,” Kennedy famously said. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
There was a chain of inventions needed to take a shuttle to space. They didn’t come from the space program itself but from people building and experimenting. The moon landing couldn't have succeeded one hundred years earlier, no matter how well planned it might have been, because the stepping stones needed to get there didn’t exist yet.
While the book is about innovation and invention, these principles apply to broad and open-ended questions like what to do with your life, or what success means to you. Rather than always seeking ways to get where we want to be (and rarely succeeding), perhaps we might simply explore the world from where we are.
The idea of being a curious explorer, following and optimising for novelty and interestingness strikes me deeply. It’s not a new idea. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, founder of logotherapy, and author of Man's Search For Meaning says:
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, [...] Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
Nassim Taleb describes the flaneur strategy in Antifragile:
"A flaneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his schedule (or his destination) so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained.”
Taleb’s flâneur is someone who seeks out optionality. Because you can’t predict what’s going to happen, you stand to gain more by positioning yourself in such a way that you always have options (and preferably ones with great upside and little to no downside). That way you can evaluate once you have all the necessary information and make the most rational decision.
His flâneur is an experimenter, a master of trial and error. He’s a self-learner who is never the prisoner of a plan. The rational flâneur merely needs to a) avoid things that hurt him, b) keep trying new things, and c) be able to recognise when he achieves a favourable outcome.
What’s The Counterargument?
The counterargument comes from Peter Thiel. Thiel writes about a type of person that he calls the indefinite optimist. The indefinite optimist believes that the future will be better, but they don't know exactly how, so they won't make any concrete plans to get there. Thiel condemns this approach and asks: How can the future get better if nobody plans for it?
You might answer that evolution isn’t planned. It's a valid answer, but the problem is that while making small changes to something that already exists might lead to progress, it's not always a viable strategy. If you’re aiming to build a billion-dollar business, intelligent design and planning often work best.
“The greatest thing Jobs designed was his business. Apple imagined and executed definite multi-year plans to create new products and distribute them effectively. A business with a good definite plan will always be underrated in a world where people see the future as random.” - Thiel
Tesla is the same. For 15 years, Musk has had a vision for Tesla, developed the steps, and executed them. From ‘The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me)’:
“As you know, the initial product of Tesla Motors is a high performance electric sports car called the Tesla Roadster. However, some readers may not be aware of the fact that our long term plan is to build a wide range of models, including affordably priced family cars. This is because the overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.
Critical to making that happen is an electric car without compromises, which is why the Tesla Roadster is designed to beat a gasoline sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari in a head to head showdown. Then, over and above that fact, it has twice the energy efficiency of a Prius. Even so, some may question whether this actually does any good for the world. Are we really in need of another high performance sports car? Will it actually make a difference to global carbon emissions.
Well, the answers are no and not much. However, that misses the point, unless you understand the secret master plan alluded to above.”
The point isn’t to say that one approach is better than the other. The planned approach will often be the correct approach. But knowing that an alternative exists is useful, if only because it gets you to ask how you might benefit from more novelty and curiosity.
p.s. While writing this, I stumbled across a note I left myself at the start of the year. I wasn’t sure where to fit it into the essay, but it felt relevant, so here it is.