Premature optimization — how your progress can keep you from reaching your true potential

According to Stewart Brand

The first time I saw a fitness landscape cartoon (in Garrett Hardin’s Man And Nature, 1969), I knew it was giving me advice on how not to get stuck over-adapted—hence overspecialized—on some local peak of fitness, when whole mountain ranges of opportunity could be glimpsed in the distance, but getting to them involved venturing “downhill” into regions of lower fitness. I learned to distrust optimality.

According to Daniel Gulati in “Why You Won’t Quit Your Job

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s The Progress Principle argues that by accumulating small wins we can achieve big results. But I’ve found that a sharp focus on incremental gains could also lead to “premature optimization.” Instead of surveying the landscape and climbing the highest mountain possible, we’re too busy scaling the first peak we happen to stumble upon.

Many of the individuals I interviewed displayed a sharp tendency to prematurely optimize, rather than to explore their options and start the climb to higher heights. One stated, “I’ll figure it out after I get promoted.” Another said, “one more month,” for eleven months in a row (and counting). As a whole, the group displayed a distinct preference for hitting just another small milestone, rather than starting from the bottom of a different (but potentially more lucrative) mountain altogether. This strong human bias toward accumulating small wins is what we call progress, but paradoxically, it seems to be inhibiting many individuals from reaching their true potential.

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