Taking an emergent strategy

Sometimes it’s hard to start, and we’ve just got to start somewhere, even if the direction is not yet clear – that’s how it is for me to start writing sometimes. In those moments, I just write, see what comes, and where it leads – and it usually does lead somewhere. It makes me think of a couple of books that I read over the past year, How will you measure your life? by Clayton Christiansen, and Range by David Epstein. In both of them, the authors talk about the importance and benefit of exploration and having a wide range of experiences as we find (and continue to find) our path.

In particular, I like what Christiansen referred to as “deliberate” and “emergent” strategies. If we are absolutely certain that a certain path is the right one, then of course, we should go ahead and follow it – that’s a deliberate strategy. However, as often is the case, we simply don’t know. What to study, where to live, what job to take, and so on – the options are in front of us, but sometimes we don’t know where to start, or even what the full range of options may be (because as is often the case, if we look further and harder, we uncover or create more options). That’s when an emergent strategy works well. Instead of following a clear path, we can try different things. If nothing draws us in, then we can keep moving until something does. Once we find it and finally do feel that something is right, that is when we can follow a deliberate strategy of pursuing it wholeheartedly.

In Range, David Epstein echoes a similar sentiment, writing about the benefits of exploration – and stopping pursuits quickly when we realize that they aren’t a match for what we are looking for. He argues for pivoting quickly until we do find that which is better-suited for us, and he also talks about the benefits of gaining the wide range of experience that is developed precisely through this process of exploration, with which I agree. It is often the case that as we go through a set of experiences, it is sometimes unclear how they all connect. Yet somehow, eventually things come together and become clear. Recall Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement quote about connecting the dots – “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He was referring to the fact that he had a varied, often jumpy path, for example taking calligraphy classes at Reed College before dropping out – and yet that interest in design is partially what led to his future Apple computers being so well-designed and aesthetically appealing.

Sometimes having this wide range of experience actually proves to be helpful in unexpected ways. In Range, Epstein gives myriad examples, including those of astronomer Johannes Kepler coming up with discoveries in the astronomical laws of gravity because he was able to apply experiences far outside of astronomy to make analogies, and academic teams finding certain discoveries when they had more interdisciplinary team members who brought experiences far beyond the traditional specialist views. Through the process of exploration that we must often go through to find that which we want to pursue, we gain valuable insights and ways of looking at the world, which may then prove to be useful as we face other challenging problems and situations in the future. Our varied experience proves to be a unique perspective, composed of the many elements that we picked up on our distinctly individual path.

There is, of course, much more that the authors mentioned in these books, but the main point that I wanted to highlight is that sometimes things feel unclear, and we are not certain what path to take or even in which direction to turn. In those moments, it is okay to just try going down a path and see what emerges. Sometimes it is better to just try something, go somewhere, rather than waiting and going nowhere. In the end, we only gain knowledge and information through experience, and we only gain that experience by actually trying something. And that information may be that we like something or that we absolutely hate it, but that is far more than we would have known if we had not tried at all. Therefore, making a choice and trying something is actually a step forward, even if the answer is that this is a path that we absolutely do not want to pursue. There should not be fear of emergent strategies. Emergent strategies will lead us somewhere. As Epstein said “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”

This has been on my mind recently as I have thought about my path and life in general. In the midst of the COVID-19 situation and the uncertainty in the world, staying inside has both provided time for reflection, but also been demotivating in some ways. I have found myself thinking at times, “What am I doing? Why? What comes next? What if I don’t succeed?” Despite sometimes not knowing the answers, I am trying to remember that taking an emergent strategy is often okay, and will lead farther than if I were to stay still and wonder, paralyzed by lack of choice. In the end, the feedback from our decisions is what leads us to where we need to go.

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