Conventional wisdom tells us that the path to great accomplishments begins by setting ambitious goals and pursuing them with unwavering determination. Yet, this objective-driven approach can paradoxically hinder true innovation and breakthrough discoveries.

Instead, achievement is better conceived as an open-ended process of exploration and discovery.

At the heart of this perspective is the idea of discoveries existing in a “search space” – a vast realm encompassing all possible ideas, creations, and paths of inquiry. Significant achievements do not arise from narrowly pursuing predefined objectives, but from wandering this conceptual space, allowing one’s journey to be guided by

  • novelty,
  • interestingness,
  • and serendipitous connections.

A Foggy Lake

If we imagine a goal as an island on a foggy lake, we can’t predict what stepping stones we will uncover until we are right up next to it. And jumping from one stone to another, we don’t know which direction each stone will ultimately take us.

When vacuum tubes were first invented, nobody was trying to build a computer. It was invented as an investigation into electricity, not computing. Yet, decades later, scientists finally realized it could be used to build the first computer, the ENIAC.

Fixating on specific goals can blind us to such fruitful opportunities lying just outside our field of view.

The Treasure Hunter

Instead, the treasures of innovation reveal themselves through an exploratory process of collecting “stepping stones” – each new idea or experience serving as a potential springboard to further discoveries down unforeseen paths. This open-ended approach mirrors the way evolution itself operates, perpetually branching and complexifying without a final destination.

Crucially, this approach celebrates diversity of thought and approach. Disunity and differing perspectives, rather than being obstacles, become engines propelling exploration along divergent avenues of inquiry. Fields like science and research should be structured to cultivate this fertile dissonance.

In essence, the ethos of discovery rejects the myth of the elusive “magic bullet” objective in favor of the tenacious, open-minded treasure hunter – one who collects insights and experiences as stepping stones toward an open future brimming with unrealized potential. For it is only by surrendering our desperate grasp on predefined ambitions that we can embrace the uncertain path to genuine achievement.

Source: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned