Gathering "Stepping Stones"
An approach to personal growth
"Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.” - Kurt Vonnegut
A common theme through the books and podcasts I’ve consumed centers on how to live a more purposeful life. I love learning - it’s the application that trips me up constantly.
I hear something inspiring in a podcast, tell a friend about it, spend my next few days applying it, only for it to flame out once the next thing comes along or I get distracted.
Thus, a lot of thinking about the how this year.
I’ve previously shared Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s “Growth without Goals” mindset. The rare blog post that truly stuck with me! I won’t rehash it here, other than to say he paints a compelling vision of a more dynamic, enduring how to living a purposeful life than I’ve encountered elsewhere.
Traditional goal-setting is unsatisfying to me for many reasons. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, summarizes it succinctly1 while advocating for a focus on principled systems:
Winners and losers have the same goals.
Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. (See: Matt Damon’s Oscar)
Goals restrict your happiness.
Goals are at odds with long-term progress.
With these in mind, I recently listened to Patrick’s interview with Kenneth Stanley, an episode aptly named “Greatness without Goals.” Their discussion focused on computer science and evolutionary systems - while a fascinating topic, it was their ‘lessons learned’ that resonated with me.
Essentially, for the big questions in life, principled thinking and curiosity allow us to gather “stepping stones.” We don’t necessarily know where they’re leading. If we accept the uncertainty inherent with that, we can find meaning. More meaning than if we had set out with a fixed destination.
I’ve included an edited excerpt below.
[00:50:08] Patrick: … What you would want is to promote low cost and fast experimentation, and all these things I think have their proponents. What do you think this means about living an interesting life? It seems as though the anxiety associated with goals, at least from my personal experience, is that you said something you want, even if it's naïve like, "I want more money," or whatever it is, "I want the perfect spouse," all the things that I think we all say we have as objectives that you're just living this state of anxiety, horrible anxiety because you don't yet have the thing you want. Whereas I think you're proposing an alternative, which is literally every day you could say, "I'm just going to compare my reference class, all my experience to the stuff I find today, optimize for novelty, try to proliferate that novelty or combine available stepping stones in interesting new ways, maybe I'm happy all the time." What do you think this means for our lives and our happiness even larger?
[00:51:20] Ken: … When I think about it, we do run our individual lives this way. I did agree with you. It's toxic, psychologically toxic, which is really interesting, isn't it? It does feel like something about society, something about all these goals, percolating through life.
[00:51:51] Patrick: We're attached to them, right?
[00:51:52] Ken: Yeah. It's just stifling over time. It seems to grip you from a really early age… You're just in this constant objective vice and you can't get out of it. It makes you sweat. I think it must be satisfying to hear an argument against that… So many objectives pervading everything. We somehow, I think, at some deep instinctual level realize this is insane. It doesn't make any sense, and it's actually true. It's insane. It's not principled, whatsoever. Again, we have to concede that in some cases you want to lose weight or something. It can make sense to have the objectives. You don't want to eliminate all objective thinking from everything. In this self-discovery or "What am I going to do with my life?" type of stuff, I think that's analogous to blue sky discovery at a society level. You're trying to discover something that's meaningful to you. That includes even love or cliché things like that… How am I going to find that thing, that thing that makes me satisfied? Is it even possible? What does it even mean to be like truly satisfied for your entire life? That's very blue sky. I think the stepping stones are totally unclear… You can look at this as we just do things that are interesting, collect those stepping stones for yourself now. Those are individual stepping stones.
You give yourself multiple opportunities and you use those as jumping off points to find what makes you satisfied, interested, rich, whatever it is that you're worried about, but there's a big caveat… which is that there's risk involved… It's like having a portfolio, having a repertoire, having an archive of things. Some won't pay off, and it's very important at the individual level I think to understand. If this advice is appealing, you have to understand that what you're getting into is a system of taking risks. I mean, you're taking informed risks. So you understand the risks you're taking, but it's obviously true that if you follow a path because it's interesting, there's no guarantees of anything, whatsoever, and it could end up failing. You're doing this, hopefully, with the awareness that it might not pay off in the end and you think it's worth it. That's why you would do it. Not all interesting things turn out to work or to work out. That's why it's good to have a portfolio investment perspective, and some things will pay off, not all things. So it's good to have your own little portfolio of things you're pursuing, but even then, we should acknowledge that there's a legitimate approach to life, which is just to have modest aims, which is less risky. You should choose things for your life that make sense for you, and you're not obligated to take risks. If you do want to have a process of self-discovery or just discovery in general, do things that are really remarkable from your point of view, then you'll have to take risks. There's no choice. The whole idea of our interestingness, repertoire, stepping stones, it's all about risk. So you have to take risks in order to have amazing ends.