Review and Summary: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned Book Cover

In the field of artificial intelligence, the book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned emerges as a groundbreaking work, challenging conventional wisdom with its radical ideas. Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman, leveraging their expertise in AI, propose a counterintuitive notion: greatness in AI algorithms, and by extension in life, isn’t necessarily a product of explicit goals and objectives.

The main idea of the book revolves around the critique of objective-driven approaches. It boldly questions the value of objectives, suggesting that true greatness might be achieved when we release the reins of rigid goals. This idea reflects deeply in a world increasingly fixated on metrics and success benchmarks, which, as the authors argue, mechanize our lives and detract from our passions. The cost of this objective obsession, often overlooked, is substantial, robbing us of the freedom to explore creatively and making us blind to serendipitous discoveries. The book highlights the value of journeying through life and AI research with an open mind, appreciating paths for their uniqueness rather than their destinations.

The authors’ use of terms like ‘objective function’ from their field of computer science and optimization theory adds a layer of technical authenticity to their arguments. This blend of scientific insight with self-development themes is not novel, but Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned stands out for its unique and refreshing approach. Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned connects the dots between AI research and personal life experiences in a manner that is both engaging and relatable.

In conclusion, this book aligns with a realistic perspective on life and achievement. It relates particularly with those who, like myself, are often misunderstood as pessimists. In reality, we are realists who recognize the unpredictable nature of life. Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned encourages us to keep our eyes open, embrace each stepping stone, and not miss out on opportunities by being overly focused on predetermined objectives. It’s a compelling read that challenges readers to rethink their approach to both technology and life, advocating for a more open and exploratory mindset.


What is objective?

  • Almost anything worth doing is expressed as an objective.
  • The idea that all our pursuits can be distilled into neatly-defined objectives and then almost mechanically pursued offers a kind of comfort against the harsh unpredictability of life.
  • A common assumption is that the very act of setting an objective creates possibility. The very fact that you put in your mind to it is what makes it possible. And once you create the possibility, it’s only a matter of dedication and perseverance before you succeed.
  • All of us are taught that hard work and dedication pay off–if you have a clear objective.
  • It’s hard to simply abandon objectives because they are a powerful security blanket. They seem to protect us from teh wild unknowns of the world. They give us a sense of purpose and the promise of success if only we true hard enough.
  • Most people approach achievement by starting with deciding on an objective.
    • This is where all the measurements and metrics of our culture come into play to help us figure our whether we’re heading in the right direction.
    • The process of setting an objective, attempting to achieve it, and measuring progress along the way has become the primary route to achievement in our culture. We’re mainly focused on ambitious objectives.

Rethinking Objectives

  • Everyday successes mislead us into believing that setting objectives works well for almost everything. But as objectives become more ambitious, reaching them becomes less promising–and that’s where the argument becomes most interesting.
  • Objectives might sometimes provide meaning or direction, but they also limit our freedom and become straitjackets around our desire to explore.
  • When everything we do is measured against its contribution to achieving one objective or another, it robs us of the chance for playful discovery. So objectives come with a cost.
  • Ambitious objectives are often deceptive. They dangle a false promise of achievement if we pursue them purposefully. But strangely in the end we often must give them up ever to have the chance of reaching them.
  • Chances are that if we plan a path based on our objective, then it will miss the stepping stones.

The Complexity of Objectives

Objectives are well and good when they are sufficiently modest, but things get a lot more complicated when they’re more ambitious. In fact, objectives actually become obstacles towards more exciting achievements. In other words, the greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives. Not only that, but this paradox leads to a very strange conclusion–if the paradox is really true then the best way to achieve greatness or to fulfill boundless ambition, is to have no objective at all.

Sometimes the best way to achieve something great is to stop trying to achieve a particular great thing.

What to Do with Objectives?

  • Not everything in life requires an objective justification.
  • Life is full of risk and some choices indeed won’t work out, but few achieve their dreams by ignoring that feeling of serendipity when it comes.
  • Sticking to objectives just isn’t part of the story in many of the biggest successes. Instead, in those successes there is a willingness to serve serendipity and to follow passions or whims to their logical conclusions.
  • Having no plan might be the best plan–explore widely without objectives.

What about Stepping Stones?

  • Instead of struggling to formulate some kind of objective justification that explains how you have the whole thing completely planned out, perhaps the best answer is that no one knows the stepping stones that led to happiness.
  • The fundamental problem of search and discovery is that we usually don’t know the stepping stones that lead to the objective at the outset.
  • The problem of predicting stepping stones becomes especially hard for ambitious objectives.


  • Be a treasure hunter. Out in the vast wilderness of the unknown are countless treasures buried deep in unmarked locations. All these treasure are worth finding even though non of them may be something you’re seeking in particular. But if you’re lucky enough to find one, it comes with a bonus–a map of clues pointing to even more treasures. That’s the stepping stones principle–one good idea leads to another.
  • As with novelty, one interesting thing leads to another. Where they will lead can’t be predicted, but as long as we follow that scent, something worth finding is almost certain to turn up sooner or later.

Author: Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman

Publication date: 5 May 2015

Number of pages: 154 pages


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