Book Review- Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective

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Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read. And I could relate even better because I work in the area of AI like the authors and many of the examples and the final case-study is from this area. Also it’s inspiring to see such deep insight coming from the tool they built called Picbreeder.

The core idea presented in the book is that “objectives” are unnecessary and rather a hinderance while solving “complex” problems. Objectives might be useful for simple problems where it is easy to chart out a path to the goal. However in case of more complex problems where the route to the goal is not known, objectives cause more harm than good.

Next, an alternate model is presented called the novelty search. It finds solutions based on how “interesting” the solution is rather than how close it is to an “objective”. The authors connect this idea to the stepping stones, which is a great analogy. They argue that a complex goal lies somewhere in a hazy lake with a very low visibility. It is difficult or impossible to reach a specific goal in this lake and an objective in this case is like a “broken compass”. However, it is much more relevant to explore the lake by finding new stepping stones based on novelty or interestingness and how many new stepping stones it can lead to. True success lies in exploring the space of the lake rather than trying to reach a specific imaginary point.

Finally, a variety of use-cases are discussed from education, innovation to evolution and AI where a novelty based approach makes more sense rather than an objective based approach.

This book presents an intriguing idea which can literally change the way we operate in life. Sometimes it gets a bit repetitive but overall it drives the point. I highly recommend this book!

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Goal vs Process

In this post, I’ll elaborate on the two kinds of approaches we can have while working on any task– goal oriented approach and process oriented approach. We’ll see what do we mean by these approaches, how these are characteristically different, some interesting examples of both these approaches for the same task and finally if one of this approach is better than the other.

Goal oriented approach primarily focuses on the end goal of the task. With this approach, we try to reach that aim in the easiest possible way. No wonder, we optimize and do whatever least is required to reach the goal using this approach. How something is done– is not as significant as long as we finally obtain the goal. Also two people who have achieved the same goal are similar from this point of view although they might have taken different paths to reach that goal.

On the other hand, process oriented approach focuses on the way of achieving a goal rather than the goal itself. With this approach, we care about how things are done. There is an inherent motivation to do things well rather than just getting things done. With this approach, we are okay if it takes longer to get something done if we are able to improve the process. And when we look at two people who might be at same level, we focus on how they reached where they are instead of where they are.

Let’s take an example, consider a student who is learning a new course. A goal oriented student who aims for an A grade will do what it takes to get that grade. He might not focus on aspects of the course which will not contribute in adding to the grade. On the other hand, a process oriented student will focus on learning all the skills he can from that course. There is an intrinsic motivation to actually learn and know more about a variety of aspects of the course.

Similarly, take a person working on a project at his workplace. A goal oriented person will do whatever he has been told to do, and nothing more. On the other hand, a process oriented person cares about the work he is doing and takes ownership of the project. He does not just stop at doing what he has been told. But goes a step forward and thinks of ways in which the project can be improved by maybe automating something, updating the algorithm of a module etc.

Also, it’s not the case that goal oriented people don’t care about the process and process oriented people don’t care about the goal. It is not just possible but likely, that a goal oriented person follows a process and a process oriented person has some goal. Thus both these aspects go hand in hand. But the approaches tell what we primarily care about while working on anything– is it the end-goal or is it the process of achieving a goal?

In my opinion, mostly it is lot more fun to do things in a process oriented way instead of goal oriented way. In goal oriented approach, we think that we will be happy when we achieve the goal. It is indeed true that we are happy on achieving a goal, but that happiness and satisfaction is short-lasted and pretty soon we are ready to go after another goal. On the other hand, following a process oriented approach, one can be happy of following a particular process and there is also great satisfaction is improving a process. If we quantify the total satisfaction, I’m sure we are lot more happy and satisfied following process oriented approaches rather than goal oriented approaches.

Failures strike much harder in a goal oriented approach. There can be a variety of reasons due to which we might not be able to achieve a goal we planned to achieve. And a goal oriented approach makes it much harder to accept failures, and it is likely that instead of learning from the failures, we might take these failures personally due to our inability to achieve a goal. On the other hand, failures are very different in a process oriented approach. Failures are about a particular process not working well for the task at hand. And there are always other alternate ways to try and different lessons to learn. Thus it is easier to understand, accept and learn from failures this way!

Goal oriented approach is useful in situations where it is urgent to get something done. Sometimes the intense pressure can be useful to innovate and optimize the way of achieving a goal. It can be productive and useful in the short run. However it might be difficult to sustain this approach during the long run.

Goal oriented — Stepping stones || Process oriented — Steering ship

I thought of an interesting analogy of these two approaches. A goal oriented approach is like jumping on stepping stones. We are completely focused on landing firmly on the next stone and then on the next stone and then on the next stone. All our efforts and vision is focused and directed on the stepping stones and everything else in the background is a blur. On the other hand, process oriented approach is like steering a ship. Ofcourse one has a goal to reach but in this case, the primary focus is on how the ship is steered. Also on the journey, one can look at the scenery around, spot birds and fishes and enjoy. It is not a distraction from reaching the goal, but overall a more satisfying experience.

Thus, we can approach the things we want to do in life using either of these approaches. And the same thing can be done very differently using either of these approaches and in turn it can be a very different experience for us. Process oriented approach can let us enjoy and learn during the journey while goal oriented approach can make us strongly pursue the desired outcomes! Finally the choice lies in our hands regarding which approach we choose!

Image Credits:
1. Stepping stones – Background photo created by kjpargeter – www.freepik.com
2. Steering ship – Vintage photo created by v.ivash – www.freepik.com

Models of Self

Each and every one of us has a core being or Self. It is basically everything that represents us, our characteristics, our features, our likes and dislikes, our fears, our triggers, our qualities and everything else… A point which is everything we actually are!

Then we have an image of our Self, which is how we perceive our Self to be. It is not an actual or true version of the real Self but our model of who we think we are!

And then there are models of our Self made by people who interact with us. From our friends, family and acquaintances, everyone who knows us creates a representation of our Self (and we in turn create models of their Self). People with whom we interact frequently, save a model of our Self for future use. On the other hand, even strangers whom we meet momentarily, create a model of our Self, however it is mostly temporary and is soon lost.

Thus let’s say a person A who is in a 50 seater bus has 10 family and friends. He will have approx 1 + 10 + 50 models of his Self in the universe! 11 (1 + 10, his own and his family and friends) are permanent, whereas rest 50 are temporary and will be deleted probably when he gets down the bus. I like the example of a similar concept from the movie Coco, where a person actually dies when nobody has his memory (model of Self) any more.

Our model of our own Self is the most important thing for us. There are some characteristics of ours which we like and thus project in our model of Self. On the other hand, there are some characteristics, which we don’t like and we try to project its opposite in our model of Self. However hard we try, we always know when we are not being true to our Self. It’s one thing to not know some of the qualities of our Self and it’s another to project the negation of the qualities of our Self. In the long term, such inverse projections might be very detrimental. There are also some features of our Self which we ourself might not know due to a variety of reasons! And discovering these characteristics can lead to a much more complete representation of our Self.

Most people form a model of our Self, based on the model which we project. So let’s say if I project that I’m kind and repeatedly show this quality in my behaviour then people believe that I’m kind and create a model of me which is also kind. Also, if we project a lot of things which we are not, then the peoples’ model of our self, our own model of our self and our true Self are very different! And it is difficult to navigate in life with drastically different models of our Self.

Apart from creating a model of our Self, we also care how others create a model of our Self. We have high expectations of how others should perceive us and think about us and we act accordingly, sometimes even with it’s not true. The more people we interact with the more models of our Self we care about. Ideally it is great if we don’t think or care about what others think about us and just be the way we are! However that’s hard to do. In that case, another option is to have fewer relations which in turn leads to opinion of fewer people we care about how they model our Self.

If one is really lucky, then one might find a mentor who can see some part of the true Self and not just the version which we are projecting to the world. These mentors can be crucial on the road to self discovery as they can point us towards something which we ourself do not know about our Self.

It is of utmost importance to discover our true Self. Because that’s the only thing which is permanent and real for us. Rest everything in the world are other people just like us and the environment in which we exist. Our Self is the only thing which exists with us all the time! It is there with us since our lifetime, from our birth to death. We may have a lot of family and friends, but each one of them is busy maintaining and projecting their model of Self. No one is truly there with us in this world. We come alone and we go alone. And we only see the models of other people and never their actual Self. We get to interact our model of Self with others’ model of their Self while we are alive. That’s why our own actual Self is the ONLY truth that we know of, for sure.

Probably that’s why it is such a big deal to discover our Self. And our Self is always with us. We need not necessarily go on retreats and trips in order to discover our Self. We can find our Self wherever we are! Whether it’s while sitting in an office chair or relaxing in the bed. However, some places might be more conducive to discover our Self that others and one can always go there if it helps, for example a mountain or a beach!

Discovering our Self is not an easy task! I’m not even sure if it is possible to do it in a lifetime! One of the ways of discovering our Self is by learning to focus our mind to look within. And inside, it’s like an ocean! It contains everything, the good, bad and ugly. The good part is fine but it’s really hard to accept the bad and the ugly aspects. However, each of us has all three aspects and the sooner we accept it the more true we can be to our Self! Self discovery is a three step process: Discover, Accept and Project. Discover the characteristics of the the true Self. Accept your Self and its characteristics as it is. Project these characteristics in the model of your Self.

Our goal should be to project the model of our Self and behave in ways which match the characteristics of our true Self. In this way, other people will also build models of our Self which are similar to our model and our true Self. And thus all the models of our Self will have a lot of things in common, and the similarity among the models will be high.

Let’s move on the road of Self discovery!

IC : https://pixabay.com/photos/audience-crowd-people-persons-828584/