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

Our lives are ruled by objectives from early childhood.  Our goal early on is to get through school, graduate, get into college, graduate, get a decent job that is both intrinsically and financially rewarding, fall in love, get married, and perhaps have kids.  We have this one-track goal-oriented mind, and if we are derailed, if we drop out of school or college or can’t get a job we like, we feel as if we have failed in life.  This book questions this model and way of thinking, and surprisingly, it is not written by some hippie, bohemian, acid-dropping, societal dropout but rather a computer scientist working on artificial intelligence!  While the author does not know where we get our objective-obsessed way of life, I believe it’s derived from both the Agrarian and Industrial Age, and it’s all about control and submission.  Ever since we acquired surplus grain, AKA wealth, we have had rulers and the ruled (masses, peasants).  Since the masses outnumber the rulers, the rulers needed some way of controlling the masses and averting rebellion.  One way was hierarchy.  Creating a structure where the masses did not feel like it was us versus them but rather us versus those just above you on the hierarchy.  I idea that you could ascend the hierarchy also gave the masses greater incentive to work within the system.  The rulers divided and conquered.  But the Enlightenment and Industrial Age also brought us the false notion that logic and reasoning could solve and fix everything.  Instead of worshiping Gods to give us everything we needed, we now worshipped science.  I’m not anti-science.  I am anti-abusing science and applying it where it fails to belong.  People started to believe that if only they create a logical objective and then a strategy of achieving that objective in logical quantifiable steps, you could achieve anything.  Your failure was not the system’s fault but rather your fault for not fulfilling each step of the objective.  This was a genius way of getting the masses to conform, by giving them a false objective (wealth, status, and success) and then blaming the masses for failing to achieve everything they ever wanted in life.  In reality, they wanted freedom from oppression and a system that valued them for their talents and character and not their wealth or status. 

 

Everyone loves to say there are two types of people in the world, and it is a huge over-simplification, but it does help you see contrasts just like saying there is fast and slow, up and down, big and small, and north and south, even if these two distinguishing polarities are actually arbitrary or relative.  For our purposes, the world is divided into Apollonians and Dionysians, the rational and emotion, the objective and the subjective, manufactured and natural, controlling and exploratory, analytical and creative.  This book sits firmly in the Dionysian category along with many books I enjoy reading as well as myself.  At work, we are learning the Lean Six Sigma management system which is very analytical, objective-oriented, systematic, structured, and involves huge amounts of quantitative measurement and analysis.  It’s an offshoot of Taylorism (created by Frederick Winslow Taylor) who improved industrial efficiency through the control and quantification of factory operations.  It’s basically a godsend for neurotic control freaks who like to measure every second, count every bean, control every movement, etc.  As the author states early on, our fascination with objectives and trying to control our lives through achieving objectives is suffocating.  “It’s like we’ve become slaves to our objectives, toiling away towards impossible perfection.  Objectives might sometimes provide meaning or direction, but they also limit our freedom and become straitjackets around our desire to explore.” 

 

Already in the first few pages, I can tell this will be one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.  “There’s a lot our culture has sacrificed in the name of objectives, and we’re going to take it back.  They’ve stolen our freedom to explore creatively and blocked us from serendipitous discovery.”  “Sometimes the best way to change the world is to stop trying to change it- perhaps you’ve noticed that your best ideas are often those you were not seeking.” 

 

Just to recap the books that I also consider the best I’ve ever read:

 

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, 1996

The Story of B by Daniel Quinn, 1997

Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz, 1998

Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, 2006

Who’s in Charge by Michael S. Gazzaniga, 2011

Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory by Stanley E. Porter, 2011

Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry by Dylan Ratigan, 2012

Why Nations Fail by Daron Robinson, James Acemoglu, 2012

The Grand Design by Stephan Hawking, 2012

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by David DiSalvo, 2012

The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama, 2012

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin EP Seligman, 2012

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2012

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark, 2014

Yes, for whatever reason, 2012 was a great year for books.

Another great book I plan on reading next is called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. 

 

I get the feeling that we are entering a new age, and the initial sensors, books, know about it.  Fact is, we are still in the grips of the Industrial Age just as there are still farms today and when cars were first invented, they shared the roads with horses.  Habits die hard and culture dies harder.  The Information Age is Dionysian whereas the Industrial Age was Apollonian.  The Industrial Age valued consistency, centralization, control, automation, obedience, structure, standardization, and industrial scale.  The Information Age values creativity, exploration, design, aesthetics, innovation, rebellion, customization, and human scale.

 

The author so brilliantly argues the case against objectives by using the parable of rooms.  I read a book called The Pinball Effect that explains how many great inventions never took direct paths but rather emerged from two different, often totally irrelevant fields connecting.  Let’s say you are an 18th century scientist trying to create a computer.  You would first enter a room of automatons, machines with gears that make things move in sequence, like a watch.  However, if you stayed in this room all day, you would never get a computer.  You would have to make the leap to another room, vacuum tubes.  But you would never know that from the outset.  You would only know that once you start experimenting with automatons and discover something is missing, electricity.  When the movie Back to the Future came out in 1985 and predicted life in 2015, they got a few things right and a lot of things wrong.  One major thing missing was the Internet and Facebook.  Marty McFly could have used the Internet and Facebook to manipulate his parents into meeting up.  Of course, nobody in 1985 could have predicted Facebook.  The great changes and innovations and masterpieces of art cannot be predicted, because they often emerge from unrelated things colliding.  Likewise, reality itself cannot be predicted as claimed by classical physicists, because completely new things emerge only when certain things collide. 

 

One thing the book misses is that when humans choose images from random patterns, what we are actually doing in a sense is not picking the most interesting pictures but rather pictures that remind us of something else we already know, that have some semblance of structure or order.  Whenever we look at random images, we are designed to find patterns and order.  It’s hardwired in our DNA.  When we look at clouds, we see animal shapes or faces.  It makes total sense.  In the wild, the two most important things to look out for is prey (for food) and predators (that may harm us).  We are designed to err on the side of safety and reward.  Therefore, when we look out into an empty field, it is better that we imagine a rabbit or a strange primate face looking back at us rather than underestimate it.  The cost of a false positive is negligible as opposed to the cost of a false negative. 

 

The problem with modern culture is that we are taught not to follow our instincts, our pattern searching behavior.  We are told what is already important and then blinders are put on.  As a result, we cannot decipher true value or even true threats in our environment.  What this book implies is that when you give us the freedom to pursue our passions and curiosity, we refine our pattern and value searching abilities, and doing so makes us much more valuable to others.  Think of it as putting a hundred people in a room, and food is hidden in all sorts of places in that room, in walls, on the ceiling, under the floor, etc.  This is how nature works.  If everyone is told to use only one method for finding food, walking forward and if you don’t find food, taking a right turn, a lot of food will remain hidden.  This book suggests that the best way to find food is to seek novelty.  Everyone else tries the same thing to find food, but when you break from the herd and try something new, chances are, you’re going to find hidden food better.  The reason we are born with this instinct is obviously because that’s how valuable things are arranged in nature, hidden.  When prey figure out more creative, novel ways of hiding, then predators must figure out more creative, novel ways of seeking.  Even plants evolve more creative, novel ways of hiding their energy content.  This is often why some of the most successful people in society are novelty seeking entrepreneurs and not corporate or bureaucratic lackeys. 

 

Throughout the industrial age, perhaps we needed a lot of bureaucratic lackeys imitating each other, because there a lot of large scale projects that required mindless work.  Frederick Taylor figured out that if you treated humans more like machines and eliminated distractions and freedom, you eliminated variances and improved efficiency.  Fair enough, but in the Information Age, the last thing we need is millions of people thinking and acting the same way without variation or creativity or novelty.  Fact is, the first thing intelligent machines will do is replace simple human labor.  Why act like a machine when they can build machines that do your job for less?  You might want to upgrade your skillset which means become more human which machines cannot yet mimic. 

 

All this book is really telling us, if you think about it, is stop doing things that are unpleasant just for the sake of some pre-established goal.  Now, you may argue that anything worth accomplishing requires hours and hours of unpleasant repetition and hard work.  It sounds like you’re encouraging people to be totally impulsive, self-indulgent, undisciplined goof-off’s.  This is an either-or rhetorical argument.  Left to our own devices, we don’t become lazy slackers.  Humans actually do enjoy hard work, repetition, and pain.  MMA fighter Conor McGregor puts it eloquently.  Talent does not exist.  You can take any normal person and turn him into a champion if he becomes obsessed, or what I would call, intensely passionate about something.  Humans have a gambling and addiction gene that you often associate with bad things like gambling and drugs.  But you ignore the many good applications  like fishing, hunting, gardening, working out, etc.  We spend countless boring hours standing around with a fishing rod because we are addicted to that one thrilling moment when a fish bites the bait.  People spend countless hours pressing a video poker button for that one thrilling moment they get a royal flush.  Left to our own devices, we can become obsessive about something that makes us an expert, and it’s that expertise that makes us successful in life.  However, when some vague goal of wealth or fame is imposed upon us, and we feel that we are forcing ourselves to stick with the goal for that external, long-term, intangible reward, we do not become obsessive or passionate.  Instead of unleashing our energy, we feel as if we are forcing it.  We never let go of ourselves and lose ourselves in the activity.  Instead, our minds are constantly wandering elsewhere searching for something to be passionate about.

 

I really like the fact that the book covers education, because rather than inspiring, educating, and getting children excited about learning, knowledge, and thinking, we are actually discouraging them by forcing expectations, objectives, and degrading measurements and grading upon them.  Instead of losing themselves in a book or obsessively trying to learn everything they can about a subject, instead, they feel stressed, anxious, fearful of failure, fearful of being judged, and their minds wander and we label them ADD or ADHD and give them psycho-stimulants which is an artificial way of making them obsess about things.  When we naturally obsess about something because we are passionate about it, our bodies release natural stimulants which give us a little high.  This is why people can stay up all night laying video games or watching a Netflix series.  Pscyho-stimulants like Ritalin imitate this artificially, but it is not attached to a passion but rather a worry or fear, so instead of being healthy passionate, we rather become unhealthy obsessively paranoid and fearful. 

 

So what is the option?  Predictably, it will take many years for us to adapt just as it took a while for people to adapt to the Industrial Age.  Can you imagine an education system that does not separate children by age into grades, that does not use grades, that does not use exams, that does not use subjects, but rather, a teacher gently guides the students as the students explore.  Now, you argue, what if the student never studies math or basic English?  How will he ever succeed in the real world?  After 12 years of education, I very much doubt a student given the freedom to explore will avoid math and basic English.  Early on, they will realize that in order to understand more complex things, they will have to learn math and basic English.  However, they will not do it just for the sake of doing it but rather to better understand how engines work or understand a complex novel or learn how planets orbit the sun.  Instead of being forced to understand math or English, they will be passionate about it as a stepping stone toward better understanding what truly interests them. 

 

Yes this all sounds hippie and alternative and you just imagine some love child in sandals going off and doing their own thing, but keep in mind, there will be a teacher guide encouraging them to find something interesting and pursue it with a passion.  When I was a kid, I loved dinosaurs, but I could only find a few books about them.  Imagine if a teacher guide exploited that initial passion and provided me with a whole bunch of books related to dinosaurs, excavation, biology, and then learning that a meteor destroyed them, perhaps I would then develop a fascination with meteors and the teacher guide would feed that with books on astronomy and astrophysics, etc.  When I was a kid, I hated science, but if it was placed in the context of things I was passionate about, I would probably have loved science.  You argue that the current system works better, but just how much does the average adult know about math, science, and English?  With all the people misspelling things on Facebook and denying climate change and vaccines and evolution, I think the average American knows shit, so why not provide an alternate education system?   

 

The second to last chapter discusses evolution and the very last one is artificial intelligence, and their location is interesting to note, because artificial intelligence becomes perhaps the last step of natural evolution.  I believe the only way to create artificial intelligence is by creating an artificial universe where you allow evolution to occur, but because it’s a virtual reality, you can speed it up.  Then by happenstance, intelligence occurs in that artificial universe.  And that makes me then wonder whether we are not living in that artificial universe, and whether our existence is not part of an attempt to create artificial intelligence.  The book concurs somewhat that the only way to create artificial intelligence is not by making it an objective directly but rather to explore and imagine and let our minds run loose. 

 

Have you ever grown up with some sort of rare condition, and then you encounter a group of people who share this rare condition or read a book about that rare condition not being so rare?  This is what this book means to me.  I’ve always been a rebel, anti-authority, unconventional, creative, independent, exploratory type, and I’ve always just thought I was weird.  What’s wrong with me?  But this book makes me feel much better.  The thing is, I don’t think I’m alone.  Certainly, America is filled with mindless, conformists who only want brand name things, because it’s safe and popular, but I believe more Americans are like me.  We don’t like the system.  We don’t like bureaucracy.  We don’t like being told what to do.  We don’t like hierarchies or performance reports or job objectives.  We like freedom and exploration.  We are humans, and I truly believe this is a more natural state.  The only reason some people become conformists is because their fear of punishment and failure to conform is greater than their desire for freedom and independence.  I believe with the Information Age and with robots pretty much taking care of all our agricultural and industrial needs, we will once again, perhaps for a short time, be allowed to be humans again.  Intelligent robots will take over all the jobs that require little independent, creative thinking, but as I said, only for a short time.  Ultimately, they will become more creative, ingenious, and interesting than we could ever imagine.  Today, I think we create a great song every month or so, but imagine the AI machine creating a great song on command, every second if needed.  Imagine it creating artistic masterpieces on command or every second.  This is where we are ultimately headed, and once we get there, I’m not quite sure what use we will be other than nostalgic like record players. 

 

The book, quite simply, changes everything, and fortunately, I agree with the change and its implications for humanity.  With the Industrial Age, everyone jumped on the industrial bandwagon, believing that automation, efficiency, economies of scale, and centralized bureaucracy and hierarchies were awesome.  Perhaps at first it was, as we created huge ships, tall buildings, and longer bridges.  Unfortunately, it was all unnatural and inhumane and it blew up in our faces turning us into mindless slaves.  The Information Age holds the promise of reversing all this, and hopefully, as more and more people become familiar with concepts like the ones discussed in this book, we as a society and culture will change as well, in this case, for the better.

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