Embrace the curious life
Go forth and play ...
In our current iteration of life we do seem to focus on combining the purpose of our life and the sustenance of the life we want together in the form of a profession. This also means that we oscillate between looking for purpose in our jobs without actually loving them, or as Graeber suggested thinking of them as bullshit jobs, and identifying things to do purely to satisfice your basic needs.
To achieve happiness in life is to ensure you have a purpose, something you want to help progress, to be with friends and family who care for you and whom you care for, and to have enough material comfort according to your wants.
Our modern life conflates the last with the rest. The purpose comes from one’s work, which also provides the money to live the life you want, and assuming that you will get friends and family around once you complete a certain amount of the latter two.
As my friend Sam Arbesman noted, the modern world is like a Whirligig Age, unmoored from the past and ever shifting in the present. The dizziness from the speed also causes disenchantment with the future, and the blowback on our sense of purpose is massive!
The thing is, purpose for most people comes from focusing on things they want to do, following their passions and their curiosity, and achieving something of significance in those areas. Unfortunately most of these are not easily monetisable to become part of the third pillar. Whether it’s playing the guitar or writing essays, achieving success in those is quite hard!
It’s not just for individual benefit, but it’s also for the societal benefit, to find a way to help people channel their own curiosities. To understand why, we can look at the theory of the adjacent possible.
It is true that if you want to achieve a particular goal, to engender a specific innovation, unless it’s immediately feasible from the possibilities in front of us, oftentimes we can’t even find out how. In the lovely podcast invest like the best, Kenneth Stanley talks about his game Picbreeder.
Picbreeder is a game which allows people to choose pictures they like and let them reproduce to create new ones. Within a few thousand generations starting from a picture blob, you could get a picture of a car. But the path to reach that car included an alien face, whose round eyes became the embedded factor that resulted in the car’s tires.
The point relevant to innovation overall is that the path that leads to discoveries, the ones that are most interesting to us, often are wildly circuitous and completely unpredictable. As Kenneth writes in his fantastic book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, objectives can therefore often be more counterproductive if what you wanted to get are ambitious and innovative outcomes.
It’s the same aspect I looked at in why do we dislike rules so much and spot the outlier. If we were to create objectives when hiring, we will fail in hiring the ones we want, through both over-fitting the selection method and having more interesting ideas be passed by because of our loss aversion.
This is akin to the daoist mantra, to achieve greatness is to stop trying to achieve greatness.
Or as Ecclesiastes might’ve said (tempered by Progress), small and incremental change over time yields meaningful progress over the long-term.
Before the immediate furore, it’s not for all objectives that this holds, or to all passions. If you want to go build a bridge or to make a faster airplane, objectives are helpful and we get to use all the tools and tricks and knowledge in our possession to make it come about. But if we were to ask the harder questions, the building of AGI, or a self-sustaining Mars base, or curing cancer, these are not simple objectives that we know how to accomplish.
To get there is both to try and use the things we have in varied combinations of technologies, and to create more to be grist to that mill. Knowing what we can credibly create has to be balanced against enabling the exploration that will allow us to create much more.
To take big leaps is after all to allow our curiosity to wander. Focusing on one’s curiosity and yearning for exploration is a far better guide to things that might open up the landscape, which is exactly the raw material that is needed in order to enable our ability to innovate later.
Basically, if innovation is a function of combinatorial ideas, then the only way to make it come about is to focus on the number of ideas that one could conceivably combine, and the number of ways in which one could combine them.
The latter is a way of creating interdisciplinary studies to see what could be combined, to achieve an objective that seems feasible. However the former is a function of how much exploration we’ve done as a species.
And because there is literally no roadmap to identify the things that which are most crucial to eventual innovation (Stanley’s example is vacuum tubes more than a century before ENIAC), our only possibility to expand the speed of progress is to increase the surface area - essentially to let more people focus on doing things that they think are important, rather than having more things be centrally controlled.
This does pose problems of course, our entire method of selection, hiring and capital allocation strictly relies on crafting objectives and sticking to it. In fact that’s exactly the problem.
In academia, we have substantially increased our focus on getting agreement from multiple committees before, during and after writing papers
In general management, we have overwhelming focus these days on increased rules and regulations, with limited leeway given to actual exploration; even skunkworks are mostly pointless
In venture capital, success is from choosing your own investments, and not purely herd following re objective criteria (even seeing the momentum investing of last decade)
In hiring, if we focus only on credentials and measurable outcomes, we miss the true outliers; as with performance management, we only optimise that which we measure
In politics, well … less said the better
The opportunity to let people focus on that which tickles their curiosity is a process that lets us drastically expand the surface area of all possible ideas. The most intriguing notion is that this isn’t necessarily true for just the full time pursuits people do, but allow people to have much more diverse portfolio careers.
I recognise this isn’t a switch that can be turned on and off, since the last requirement of enough money to sustain oneself isn’t something that can feasibly be separated from doing things in order to generate that money. However, the idea that focus on one activity to generate a large chunk of both our meaning and our sustenance might just be weirder. Especially when we don’t know the size of the chasm that needs to be leapt across, the only option is to look for the next stepping stone.
And this is something that’ll help us both with higher immediate satisfaction by most people with their working lives, but also our long run future. Isn’t that what we ought to want?
As a great man once said:
The past is written, but the future is left for us to write. And we have powerful tools, openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity.