Why not to set goals (it's not what you think)

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What are your 2024 goals?

Someone has probably already asked you that.

Setting goals is so ingrained in how we operate in the world, especially this time of the year.

We usually don't question it.

If we do question it, it's usually because:

  • We've become cynical
  • We have implicit goals, even if not written down
  • We set micro-targets that we don't perceive as 'goals'

But here is another, better reason why not to set goals:

Goals don't help with - and may even block us from - achieving remarkable results.

Bold claim, I know. Let me explain.

I've come across this idea in the book 'Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned' (link below). The title sounds like from a vain self-help book. But it's written by two computer scientists building Artificial Intelligence.

They've found that AI models create more remarkable results when not given a goal, but rather are free to explore the novel and interesting.

Imagine a robot learning how to navigate a labyrinth. You can set a goal for it to get to the exit, and it will probably measure its success by how close it gets to the exit, even if following a straight line into a dead end.

Or you tell it to explore the novel and interesting. It will first bounce off the wall. With that experience under the belt, it will soon pursue new behaviours. It will be curious to bounce off another wall. Soon enough though, it will try to go around the wall...until the only novel thing to do is to get to that shiny exit.

That last approach may sound incredibly inefficient. And it is for simple problems: if it's a straight line and you see the path, just set the goal to get to other side.

But for ambitious problems, we don't know the path. We don't even know what's on the other side of the path.

All we can know is where we've come from, what a new stepping stone looks like, and ideally we also know that the stepping stone is likely to lead to new stepping stones.

That approach is not just for an AI model trying to escape a labyrinth. It's fundamental to evolution in nature, and to human innovation.

Think about the discovery of penicillin, the microwave oven, 'America', post-it notes. The inventors and explorers did not set out to achieve these things. Their goals probably looked very different from the result. In their exploration, they were open-minded enough to see that something remarkable, even if unexpected, was in front of them.

And so the alternative to goal-setting is not mindless wandering. It's exploration, not random, but open-ended: pursuing novelty and what we find interesting (whatever that is for you).

Can you think of achievements in your life that came not from setting them as goals but perhaps seemingly randomly?

I can.

And so for 2024, I have set a few goals and I intend to explore novelty and things I find interesting. For me, that is to explore how to make politics wiser - in writing and talking to others.

🎙️ My latest podcast

Next episode is live 16 January 2024. Stay tuned for some great guests this year.

And what do you think: who else should I talk to? Let me know at daniel@politicwise.org 🙏

📚 What I read & listen to

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned
Why does modern life revolve around objectives? From how science is funded, to improving how children are educated -- and nearly everything in-between -- our society has become obsessed with a seducti

🖋️ My favourite quote

"The important point is that novelty (and interestingness) can compound over time by continually making new things possible. So instead of seeking a final objective, by looking for novelty the reward is an endless chain of stepping stones branching out into the future as novelty leads to further novelty. Rather than thinking of the future as a destination, it becomes a road, a path of undefined potential." p. 40 in 'Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned' by Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman