Why greatness cannot be planned

After months of dissecting research papers, interviewing experts, stumbling down “dabbit holes” (as we call them here at FiveThirtyEight1) and not writing a single draft, my editor gave me a non-negotiable deadline, and I spiraled into a well of despair. I had a desk cluttered with scientific papers, a hard drive stuffed with gigabytes of research and three chalkboards covered in illegible notes, yet still no tangible form for my obsession. Only in the final hours, with the deadline closing in, did something resembling a story emerge. The first draft that I puked out was no masterpiece, but it was finally something. All those scribbles and stacks of paper were necessary steps, but only in retrospect can I see where they were pointing me.
When I told this story to University of Central Florida computer scientist Kenneth Stanley, he nodded in recognition. I met Stanley, a mild-mannered artificial intelligence researcher, without intending to. We were at the Santa Fe Institute, where he was spending a sabbatical and I was in residence as a journalism fellow. Stanley had stumbled upon an algorithmic principle that pointed the way to creativity in science, art, culture and life, a principle he outlines in a new book, “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.” He told me that a computer algorithm he’d created suggested that my chaotic, unstructured writing process was the ideal way to produce creative work.

Interesting. I need to pick up that book. Stanley built an algorithm that allowed users to evolve photos from simple blobs like this...

...to more recognizable images like these:

What's interesting is thinking about whether this idea applies to other forms of creative work and research.

The same sort of blind process happened in another series of experimentswhere Stanley and Joel Lehman instructed robots to work toward defined objectives. In one experiment a bipedal robot programmed to walk farther and farther actually ended up walking less far than one that simply was programmed to do something novel again and again, Stanley writes. Falling on the ground and flailing your legs doesn’t look much like walking, but it’s a good way to learn to oscillate, and oscillation is the most effective motion for walking. If you lock your objectives strictly on walking, you won’t hit that oscillation stepping stone. Stanley calls this the “objective paradox” — as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.

And does this thinking apply to teams as well? If you are a company that needs a creative breakthrough, might that require a mental shift from a world of deterministic results, in which deliberate practice is the best process, to one that is more probabilistic, open, exploratory?

I suspect the answer is some mix of patience, novelty-seeking, and persistence. You have to be okay with a high failure rate, and a lot of iteration, but that by its very nature requires a lot of repeated, sustained effort. Thus, much like being an entrepreneur.