The local maximum paradox: why you often must go backwards to find fulfillment

Photo: Eric Ward

If you just try to keep getting better every day, you probably won’t end up the best place for you.

Imagine for a moment that you’re taking a walk in the woods. You decide to find a high place that will deliver best possible view. So you follow the obvious method: just keep walking uphill until you can’t walk uphill any more.

Will that get you to the highest point? Not likely. It will get you to the top of a hill, with no way to go but down. But if there’s a higher viewpoint nearby, you might miss it. You’ve found what mathematicians call a “local maximum“: a high point compared to the points around it, but not the highest point you can reach.

This kind of thing happens in life all the time.

If you’ve written a passage, you could keep polishing and polishing it until it is the best it can be. But the path to making it great might require a total rewrite from another point of view. No amount of polishing your existing sentences will cause that to appear.

I can’t resist including a Wordle example. Suppose you know the word you’re seeking is S_A_E, with S, A, and E in the spaces shown, but unknown letters in the two blank spaces. It is SPACE? SNAKE? SHALE? STAGE? There are actually 23 possible solutions, and if you try them one by one you’ll run out of guesses. A better strategy is to guess something like PLUCK, which is definitely not the right answer, but gives you information about five new letters that are in many of the solutions. You can take what you learned from going backwards — away from the solution — to go forwards.

If you’re in a job, you could try continually optimizing your work. Maybe you decide to become the best digital marketer there is, learning everything you can about digital marketing techniques and becoming expert at applying them. And then you realize that digital marketing has become boring to you. Maybe you’re intrigued by artificial intelligence, or graphic design, or finance. To do that, you’ll have to back away from your expertise, stop optimizing, and start learning as a novice again.

It strikes me that all the discussion about disruption in business applies the same reasoning. Everyone in a market is attempting to optimize their creation and delivery of a product. The disruptor backs away from the whole market and finds another path to satisfying the customer without obeying the rules the other competitors are. Those competitors are climbing towards a local maximum, and the disruptor has found another path to higher ground by getting off the optimization treadmill.

If you’re feeling stuck, this may be why. For a minute, stop trying to maximize the efficiency of what you’re doing. Back away. Rethink. Imagine another path to fulfillment, one that may feel uncomfortable since you’ll be traversing ground you’ve never trodden upon before.

Before long you may find yourself approaching higher ground you’d never suspected was there. Often, the skills learned from all those years of trying to optimize a well-trod path may turn out to be useful in the new context.

And after your invigorating climb, I expect to see you waving down at us from the top of the mountain.

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