Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned by Kenneth O. Stanley & Joel Lehman

In “Why Greatness Cannot be planned” Stanley & Lehman present a compelling case as to why our most ambitious goals can’t be achieved through planning. While goal setting may be useful for smaller short term objectives it becomes less effective for big vision long term goals. The paradox is that our focus on a particular goal can obscure our vision and cause us to miss vital information that we needed to achieve that goal.

Instead of looking for what can get us from point A to point B in the quickest manner Stanley & Lehman urge us to pursue that which we find interesting.  Each point of interest can be understood as a stepping stone. Each stepping stone points us in the direction of another. By following this trail we are able to create and invent things that we previously couldn’t even imagine.





Chapter 1 – Questioning Objectives 

-Every day small successes misled us into believing that setting objectives works well for almost everything. But as objectives become more ambitious, reaching them becomes less promising — and that’s where the argument becomes more interesting. 

-It’s useful to think of achievement as a process of discovery 

-The greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives

-Objectives are a pillar of our culture, but they’re also a prison around our potential.


Chapter 2 – Victory for the Aimless 

-Being open and flexible to opportunity is sometimes more important than knowing what you’re trying to do

-Somehow successful people are open to falling off the path. Instead of blind devotion to their original objective, their secret ingredient seems to be a willingness to make a complete 180 when the feeling is right. 


Chapter 3 – The Art of breeding Art 

  -No matter how tempting it is to believe in it, the distant objective cannot guide you to itself — it is the ultimate false compass.


Chapter 4 – The False Compass 

-Though the mind is a powerful force in search, it’s still difficult to see farther than one stepping stone away, no matter our intelligence.

-Always comparing where you are to where you want to be is potentially dangerous 

-We can’t expect to achieve anything great without overcoming some level of deception

-To arrive somewhere remarkable we must be willing to hold many paths open without knowing where they might lead.

-Nature is a stepping-stone collector, accumulating steps towards ever-more complicated novelties

-Almost no prerequisite to any major invention was invented with that invention in mind 

-When we unleash search from the trap of the objective, liberating it from the requirement to move only towards where we hope to arrive, it becomes a kind of treasure-hunter that finds needles in the haystack of what’s possible.

-A single-minded preoccupation with money is likely exactly the wrong road to abundant wealth 


Chapter 5 – The Interesting and the Novel 

-Instead of worrying about where we want to be, we could compare where we are now to where we have been.

-Interesting ideas are those that open up new possibilities

-Information and complexity go hand in hand — more complex behaviors require more information 

-The space of behaviors that are actually attempted while searching for novelty is a tiny part of the much larger space of all behaviors that we can imagine, which helps make it practical.

-AI programed with Novelty based search reached objectives more effectively than those programmed with objective based search


Chapter 6 – Long Live the Treasure Hunter 

-Great discoveries are possible if they’re left undefined 

-The treasure is an opportunistic explorer — searching for anything and everything of value, without a care for what might be found.


Chapter 7 – Unshackling Education 

Campbell’s law – “The more Any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

-Ex. Paying citizens in india for every dead cobra only lead to people breeding more cobras 

-Anyone whose path isn’t fixed from the start can explore stepping stones and pursue those that they find most interesting in the moment.  

-Goals are fine when the problem is simple

-Measurements are great when you have a modest goal, but lose their value when applied naively to ambitious undertakings.

-The primary education system in Finland provides greater individual autonomy to teachers and imposes no standardized tests on students. Finland also is a world leader in education, significantly outperforming the US.

-We don’t need objectives to find great things. We don’t need to seek top performance or perfect accuracy to discover something amazing. It’s like when we traded objectives for novelty — we weren’t left without principles, but with different principles that better reflect how discovery really works.


Chapter 8 – Unchaining Innovation 

-When scientists disagree on something there is reason to believe there is something worth exploring in that domain 

-Some of our resources should go towards rewarding disagreement rather than consensus 

-Predicting impacts is not always possible, and the attempt to do so discounts serendipity’s important role


Chapter 9 – Farewell to the Mirage 

-You can go treasure hunting following your instinct for the interesting, not because you know where you’re going, but because you feel the potential in where you are right now.

-Deciding where to go based on where you are is often wiser than deciding where to go based on where you want to be

-All of us can transform the present into the future. None can transform the future into the present.

-When there’s 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.

-It’s in your interest that some do not follow the path you think is right, because one day they will build the stepping stones that lead to your greatest discovery.

-To achieve our highest goals, we must be willing to abandon them.


Chapter 10 – Case Study 1: Reinterpreting Natural Evolution 

-Evolution is the ultimate treasure hunter, searching for nothing and finding everything as it spills through the space of all possible organisms.


Chapter 11 – Case Study 2: Objectives and the Quest for AI

-The field of AI can be thought of as the search for Algorithms 

-The search for AI Algorithms can be described as a kind of meta-search — a search for things that search