I love Derek Siver’s question: “What are you optimizing your life for?”
For the last few years, my answer has been “interesting.”
I always felt sort of dumb for saying that, but then I read a paper called Driven By Compression Progress.
The paper looks at humans as information processing machines that are compressing information to make themselves more efficient.
Compression is the ability to explain a large set of data and explain it in a simple, more beautiful way.
E = mc2 is an incredible compression. It explains a huge amount of our world in a very succinct and beautiful way.
Imagine forking humanity where one fork knew E=mc2 and another didn’t, you can imagine how impactful that compression was.
In a way, this sort of happened. E=mc2 and a lot of the other compression progress around it lead to the U.S. developing the atomic bomb.
Had the Axis powers had the same compression and developed the bomb first, our world would look very different.
Compression happens on an individual level. Good investors have done huge amounts of compression: they can look at a huge market with huge amounts of data and compress it down to make an investment decision.
Likewise good leaders can look at their industry, team, personal abilities and compress it down to say “Given all this data, we should be focusing on X.”
How do you get good at compressing?
You optimize for interesting.
Interesting was an emotion humans evolved for where we have the potential to make “compression progress.” A book that you find interesting is usually one which lets you compress a large set of data in a succinct, beautiful and efficient way.
Interesting is an emotion that evolved to help humans optimize their fitness in an environment where external indicators were hard to measure.
Much of what we do that improves our information processing capacity as individuals (and thus fitness in Darwinian terms) is difficult to measure.
There is no easily measurable metric which Einstein could have optimized for that would have lead him to e=mc2. He just thought the problem was interesting. This is true of every major discovery or innovation in history.
It’s equally true of the investor or CEO. You can’t make high level decisions on data alone, there should be a large element of going with your gut.
The huge amount of data we have available to us can lead to us disregarding our emotional intelligence.
However, if you take the data and A/B testing methodology to it’s logical extreme, every business ends up as a brothel and every website becomes a porn site.
You have to draw a line as to what feels right at some point.
Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, classified innovations as either sustaining — the ones which kept an industry on the same path it was already on, or disruptive, ones that set the industry on a new trajectory.
Sustaining innovation is driven by optimizing for metrics, measuring the quantitative and qualitative feedback from customers and shaping your product around that.
Disruptive innovation only happens when you optimize for interesting.
The emotion of “interesting” is actually the most effective compass for deciding what to optimize for in an uncertain world.
How do you do this?
80% of what I read and consume is purely because I find it interesting. It has no direct life benefit. Over time, I find ways in my output to use inputs that seemed dilettante.
70% of the sources I cited in my book, The End of Jobs, I had read out of interest in the 3 years before I started writing it. I was optimizing for interesting.
As Steve Jobs said, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
2. Make Tinker Time
Chris Dixon observed that “what the smartest people do on the weekends is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years”
Google used to be famous for their “20% time” where they let employees work on whatever they wanted for 20% of their time. Gmail and Adsense, Two of Google’s most successful products, came out of this.
I try to do the same by allocating one day a week (usually Saturdays) to “tinker” with whatever I think is interesting. This was when I wrote the many of the essays that made it into my book.
If you’d like to schedule some 20% time in your week, download my free planning workbook that will help you get your most important work done and leave you some time tinker too.