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    #148 Kenneth Stanley: Set The Right Objectives

    Stepping away from the expected and embracing novelty is crucial for creating unique and valuable outcomes, both for individuals and luminaries, and is essential for continued innovation.

    enOctober 04, 2022

    About this Episode

    Artificial intelligence researcher and author Kenneth Stanley has argued that “as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.” So what should you consider when thinking about your objectives, and what will set you up for success? On this episode Stanley discusses how to set the right objectives for your life, why we’re too tied to accomplishments, what role accountability plays in our education system, the value of peer review,  why transformative innovations are always counter intuitive, and so much more.

    Stanley is the co–author of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective,  as well as the former Head of Core AI Research at Uber AI and the Open-Endedness Team Leader at OpenAI. He has also served as the Charles Millican Professor in Computer Science at University of Central Florida.

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    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Setting modest objectives and fostering serendipitous moments can lead to more achievable and efficient achievements, challenging the belief that ambitious objectives are always necessary.
    • Relying solely on assessments and metrics can hinder progress in complex problems like education, necessitating a comprehensive approach that incorporates multiple measures of progress.
    • Embracing risks, failures, and interesting stepping stones, while shifting towards nuanced accountability, can drive better outcomes in addressing complex problems and fostering innovation.
    • Embracing diverse perspectives and encouraging independent thinking in the peer review process can unlock innovative ideas and lead to groundbreaking discoveries.
    • Embracing subjectivity and discussing what is interesting is crucial for fostering innovation and progress in various fields. Developing a culture that values and encourages these discussions is essential.
    • Embracing risk and exploring new ideas in education and societal structures can lead to innovative approaches and improved outcomes, as long as a balance is struck between tolerance for risk and caution in critical areas.
    • Balancing risk-taking and accountability is crucial for fostering innovation and achieving ambitious goals in domains like education and science research. Embracing the inconvenient and letting go of security blankets can encourage creativity and growth.
    • True visionaries understand the timing and feasibility of their ideas, focusing on investigating and unearthing the stepping stones that can lead to progress.
    • Effective communication and a supportive organizational culture can help turn grandiose visions into valuable stepping stones towards achieving goals.
    • True innovation comes from embracing unconventional thinking and challenging the status quo, even if ideas may initially seem crazy or illogical.
    • Stepping away from the expected and embracing novelty is crucial for creating unique and valuable outcomes, both for individuals and luminaries, and is essential for continued innovation.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    Flaws of Ambitious Objectives and the Importance of Serendipity

    The approach of setting ambitious objectives can have serious flaws. While modest objectives, such as personal fitness goals or obtaining a degree, are achievable and beneficial, it is the ambitious objectives that are problematic. Ambitious objectives refer to goals that have not been accomplished before and require innovative breakthroughs. The discussion highlights that many great ideas and discoveries, such as rock and roll or penicillin, were not initially set as objectives but were serendipitous findings. The conversation emphasizes the need to recognize the importance of effective serendipity and create situations that foster it. Moreover, it challenges the prevalent belief that objectives alone drive achievements and highlights the self-deception and inefficiency that can result from overly relying on ambitious objectives. Ultimately, it suggests the need for a shift in perspective on how achievements and discoveries are approached in order to maximize resources and potential.

    The Pitfalls of Strict Objective Setting and Metrics-Based Progress

    Setting strict objectives and relying heavily on assessments and metrics can actually hinder progress and lead to dead ends. This is exemplified by the education system's pursuit of perfect scores on standardized tests, despite never achieving this outcome. The deceptive nature of assessments and the complexity of certain problems, such as education, make it unrealistic to expect progress solely through metrics. However, the issue of accountability is often raised as a counterargument. It is important to recognize that accountability and assessment are not mutually exclusive. Instead of focusing solely on assessments, a more comprehensive approach that considers the complexity of the problem and incorporates multiple measures of progress should be adopted.

    Rethinking Accountability for Effective Progress and Innovation

    Effective progress and innovation in complex problems require a different approach to accountability. Traditional metrics and assessment techniques often fail to identify the counterintuitive stepping stones that lead to high achievement. In order to make meaningful strides, we must be willing to tolerate risks and failures, as they contribute to the proliferation of potential stepping stones. A culture of nuanced accountability is needed, one that recognizes the value of interesting stepping stones rather than solely focusing on metrics. Disseminating and rewarding interesting ideas through social networks, such as the network of teachers, can lead to improvements in various systems. Peer review can play a role in recognizing and evaluating these ideas, while still ensuring that inappropriate proposals are filtered out. Overall, a shift towards recognizing and supporting counterintuitive approaches can lead to better outcomes in complex problem-solving.

    Redefining the Peer Review System for Innovation and Breakthroughs

    The peer review system needs to undergo a change in order to foster innovation and new perspectives. Currently, there is a culture of strict conformity and accountability, where individuals are expected to align with the consensus and adhere to a predefined notion of what is considered good. However, this approach stifles unique ideas and potential breakthroughs. Instead, the peer review system should allow individuals to express their individual perspectives and assessments. By giving space for contrarian views and encouraging individuals to follow up with their ideas, we enable the percolation of new concepts through networks. It is important to maintain peer accountability, but also to empower reviewers to think independently and avoid a universal assessment culture. By adopting this evolutionary approach, similar to nature's rewarding of variations, we can foster innovation and uncover truly groundbreaking insights.

    The Link Between Innovation and What is Interesting

    There is a strong connection between innovation and the concept of what is interesting. Kenneth Stanley argues that nature's ability to innovate and solve complex problems is rooted in its ability to detect what is interesting. He suggests that humans also possess this innate ability to recognize what is interesting, and it is crucial for progress in various fields, including education and technology. However, he highlights that our reluctance to embrace subjectivity and discuss what is interesting hinders our ability to innovate. This fear of subjective judgment and our overreliance on objective metrics neglects the valuable insights and deep understanding that come from subjective judgments. To foster innovation, it is essential to create a culture that values and encourages discussions about what is interesting.

    Overcoming Fear to Foster Innovation in Education and Society

    Our educational system and societal structures hinder innovation and flexibility due to a fear of failure and a reluctance to take risks. The discussion highlights how the current system prevents us from exploring new ideas, such as having the best teachers teach students at various levels. The fear of subjectivity and the bureaucratic nature of our institutions impede our ability to adapt and try different approaches. While acknowledging that some risks may be too high, the conversation emphasizes the importance of discussing and examining interesting possibilities. It suggests that we need to find a balance between embracing risk in certain domains where it is tolerable, while being cautious in more critical areas. In contrast, nature and evolution exemplify a continuous cycle of experimentation without fear of failure or loss aversion.

    Overcoming Fear and Embracing Innovation for Progress

    There is a lack of risk-taking and innovation in certain domains, such as education and science research, due to a fear of failure and a focus on assessment and accountability. This fear hinders progress and prevents new ideas from being explored. However, it is important to acknowledge that successful innovation requires a balance between taking risks and considering the potential consequences. While it may be tempting to rely on objective metrics and security blankets to ensure nothing goes wrong, this approach ultimately hinders growth and improvement. Instead, it is necessary to embrace the inconvenient, difficult, and sometimes scary reality of pursuing interesting ideas and objectives. By letting go of our security blankets and taking off the straight jacket of assessment and accountability, we can encourage creativity and potentially achieve meaningful and ambitious goals.

    The Importance of Recognizing Stepping Stones in Making Vision a Reality

    Being a visionary is not enough to make significant progress in a particular field. It is not sufficient to simply speculate about grand ideas or make unsupported claims. Instead, true visionaries are those who recognize when the necessary stepping stones have come together to make their vision a reality. These individuals, like Steve Jobs or the Wright Brothers, understand the timing and feasibility of their ideas, and can bring them to fruition. While trying new and seemingly unrealistic ideas may not always be harmful, it is important to consider the motivations behind such attempts. It is more valuable to focus on investigating and unearthing the stepping stones that can lead to progress, even if the ultimate goal might not be achieved.

    Navigating visionary ideas and fostering a culture of experimentation

    It is important to distinguish between different types of visionary ideas and their implications. Kenneth Stanley emphasizes that not all grandiose visions lead directly to their intended goals, but they can still uncover valuable stepping stones along the way. When discussing such ideas with bosses or superiors, it is crucial to frame the argument effectively and provide context. Shane Parrish points out that the struggle to pursue interesting and creative ideas within organizations often stems from the fear and difficulties faced by bosses in explaining these ideas to their own superiors. This conversation highlights the need for a culture shift that empowers individuals to make reasoned arguments and encourages organizations to embrace principled experimentation and research.

    Embracing counterintuitive thinking for revolutionary outcomes.

    Counterintuitive ideas and actions often lead to revolutionary outcomes. Kenneth Stanley emphasizes the need to think beyond conventional wisdom and avoid ideas that make too much sense. He believes that true innovation comes from embracing counterintuitive stepping stones that initially seem strange or illogical. Stanley argues that it is not enough for organizations to have dedicated innovation departments; they must also foster a culture that values and embraces unconventional thinking. He suggests that the current objective culture, which often prioritizes predictable outcomes and consensus-driven decision-making, hinders true innovation. To achieve our highest goals, Stanley proposes being open to abandoning them and pursuing ideas that may initially appear crazy or nonsensical. This willingness to challenge the status quo can lead to truly groundbreaking discoveries and advancements.

    Embracing Novelty for Innovation and Interestingness

    Novelty is a crucial component of interestingness and innovation. When we try to predict what others expect us to do and intentionally deviate from that path, we embrace novelty and increase the likelihood of creating something truly unique and valuable. While it may be uncomfortable and risky to leave behind familiar territory, it is through stepping away from what has been done before that true innovation arises. By continuously seeking novelty and avoiding predictability, we can maintain our relevance and avoid getting stuck in a rut. This heuristic applies to individuals as well as luminaries, who often struggle to break free from their established paths. Embracing novelty requires energy and intention, but it is essential for continued innovation.

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    Gayner shares the difference between good debt and bad debt, where he disagrees with Munger, and why he focuses on the basics.

    This intimate conversation offers a level of insight and honesty that Tom hasn’t offered anywhere else.

    Gayner is currently the CEO of Markel Group and the Director of The Coca‑Cola Company. He also serves as chairman of the Davis Series Mutual Funds board and on the boards of Graham Holdings and Markel.

    Listen and Learn.

    --

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    Blake Eastman: Learn to Read Anyone

    Blake Eastman: Learn to Read Anyone
    Blake Eastman has dedicated his entire life to psychology and nonverbal behavior.
     
    In 2009 he founded The Nonverbal Group, a  behavioral research and education company in New York City which conducts large scale studies on human behavior and uses a wide range of technologies to systematically deconstruct and improve human communication.
     
    Eastman dives deep into a number of subjects revolving around how we communicate with one another, including the ability to read nonverbal cues, his thoughts on big talkers vs. silent types, how we can communicate with our partners without complaining, the value of watching ourselves communicate on video, understanding the power structures and social dynamics at work, and so much more.
     
    Eastman has also served as an adjunct psychology professor at the City University of New York for six years where he taught General Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Group Dynamics. He is also a former professional poker player and the founder of School of Cards, the first brick-and-mortar poker school in New York City.
     
    Listen and Learn

    --

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    MetaLab: Helping the world’s top companies design, build, and ship amazing products and services. https://www.metalab.com

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