Review: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective
Kenneth Stanley & Joel Lehman

Identifying a goal might seem a prerequisite of meaningful action, as implied by the idea of ‘aimless’ activity. The authors of this book claim that in complex environments, though, objectives can be misleading, since we don’t actually know the steps required to reach distant goals.

Images from the author’s Picbreeder website, where users ‘discover’ pictures through evolution

They give the analogy of stepping stones 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, they suggest.

For example, vacuum tubes were invented with no inkling of their potential use in computation, but proved crucial in creating the first computers. The computer became possible only because it had not been a goal — as no one would have anticipated vacuum tubes’ key role.

Technological discoveries generally build on elements that weren’t made with them in mind, they argue, since “the steps that lead to great invention aren’t likely to resemble great invention”. The means aren’t like the ends — the lake is foggy and the stepping stone paths are windy.

Much better to go one step at a time, discarding distant objectives for an alternative focus. But what can guide us if not goals? The authors are computer scientists, and develop their argument from their research into “non-objective” search algorithms.

An objective approach to search is goal-directed. Trying to reach the end of a maze, for example, such an algorithm will deem most successful those routes that end up closest to the finish. Mazes, though, are deceptively complex environments — an objective search will often get stuck down blind alleys that leads towards (but not all the way to) the finish.

An alternative is to seek novelty. This way, once an area has been explored (no matter how close it appears to be to the maze’s end), other routes will be sought. This ultimately leads to much more successful maze completion than objective-led searches.

Non-objective algorithms (such as novelty search) aren’t just for solving mazes, they argue. Any complex environment can be framed as a search — whether for scientific discoveries, technological innovation, or artistic creations. Even organisations and institutions, they suggest, are subject to the same dynamics of deception when pursuing far-off goals.

They are careful to acknowledge, though, that in many circumstances goal-directed behaviour is appropriate — as long as the objective is “one stepping-stone away”.

As they put it:

“Objectives are well and good when they are sufficiently modest, but things get a lot more complicated when they’re more ambitious. In fact, objectives actually become obstacles towards more exciting achievements, like those involving discovery, creativity, invention, or innovation — or even achieving true happiness. In other words (and here is the paradox), the greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives.”

This suggests the need for humility on our part (as Samuel Arbesman does in Overcomplicated with respect to technology). Much of the world is simply beyond our full control, and we would do better to recognise this than use goals as a false compass. 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.

To conduct some novelty search yourself, check out their website Picbreeder, where users evolve images. Or you could seek novelty elsewhere in your life, whether a new activity, striking up a new conversation, or going somewhere you’ve never been. You never know where it might lead.

‘Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.’ William Empson

‘Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.’ William Empson