To explore or to exploit?… that is the question.
The choice of whether to explore or exploit is a lifelong dilemma. And despite the fact that you may be completely oblivious to it, this is a question that you have – albeit subconsciously – probably asked yourself every single day of your life.
Do you explore? i.e try out new experiences, venture into new territories, and gain new information. Or, do you exploit? i.e take advantage of the knowledge that you already possess, relationships that you have already built and activities that you have already done.
If you overexploit and under explore then you miss out on numerous opportunities to increase your overall happiness and improve your life, because you are too busy taking advantage of what you already know, are well accustomed to, and are completely comfortable with.
Conversely, if you over explore and under exploit, then you risk spending a large part of your life running around, continuously chasing waterfalls. With the hope and desire that the next experience/adventure/relationship/qualification/job/restaurant/sexual encounter is going to be much better than the last.
Since birth, we have been exploring. As a baby, we place random objects into our mouth. As we age and improve on our motor skills, we bravely crawl/walk/run around in all sorts of unknown and unsafe environments. As we enter adolescence we start experimenting with drugs, alcohol and our sexuality. And as we enter into adulthood, we jump around from job to job and sometimes even career to career, as we try and find something that we are good at, that we are ‘passionate’ about and that we enjoy, or at the very least, don’t hate. Without exploring we will never truly know or understand anything new and novel. Without exploring we cannot grow. Without exploring we cannot truly progress in life.
On the other hand, and in what I would imagine being the majority of cases, we tend to exploit what we already know, or what we have been told is right. Human beings are extremely social animals and we are brought up in environments that foster particular traditions, perspectives, and activities. We are creatures of habit, and we tend to unconsciously fall into patterns of repetition as soon as we find something that we are somewhat comfortable with. We end up eating the same food, hanging around the same people, doing the same tasks, staying in the same locations and traveling to the same destinations (…using the exact same routes).
We have a tendency to become complacent very quickly and extremely easily. And this is because we enjoy, and to an extent depend on our ability to predict the outcome of certain situations, a valuable trait that is extremely easy to explain from an evolutionary perspective. According to the non peer-reviewed Theory of Evolution by Dr. Benjamin J. Mmari (PhD, Evolutionary Biology, School of Life): our more risk-tolerant, outgoing and adventurous ancestors out there in the predator-ridden savannah had a much lower life expectancy, whereas our ancestors who stayed indoors, Uber Ate (Uber Eatsted?) the same meal, and Netflixed & Chilled were much more likely to live longer, procreate and pass on their risk-averse genes onto the next generation.
It goes without saying that our life will eventually need some sort of stability, whether it be socially, intimately, financially or healthwise. So it is easy to see why exploiting is necessary. Without exploiting we would not have any sense of consistency. Without exploiting we would not have any confidence in our ability to produce predictable outcomes, which in some cases could literally be the difference between life and death.
Of course, one obviously needs to find a balance between the two. There is a time to explore and there is a time to exploit, and it is up to us to decide when to do either one. Someone who is in a happy, loving, stable relationship would probably do themselves more harm than good by exploring an extramarital affair when they could just exploit what they already have. Whereas someone else who has been experiencing relationship issues, is extremely unhappy and has built up a lot of anger and resentment towards their partner, would probably be better off not exploiting their failing relationship any further, and instead venture out into the unknown, in order to explore the vast, potential-lover sample space. #Tinder #Bumble #justSwipeRight
A case for exploring
For as long as I can remember I have always been one to explore, and the older I get the more I realize its importance. Without exploring sufficiently, you can end up exploiting prematurely. And if you exploit prematurely, you might end up living an undesirable life that you don’t fully accept as your own. Insufficient exploration breeds complacency because you end up being comfortable with where you are, what you do, who you are with and where you are going. If you do not know what is possible or what is available to you, then there is no real reason for you to try and work towards anything different to what you already have. The journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with one step, but if you have no knowledge of what the possible destinations are, then why would you even move? Where are you going?
In life, you can only ever truly know and understand what you have been exposed to and if you limit your overall exposure, when it eventually comes time to exploit, your pool of options will be extremely restricted. The fallacy here is that even though at times you convince yourself that you are making the ‘best’ decision possible, the truth is that the objective efficacy of your decision is really just a function of the possible options that are available to you at the time. The more knowledge that you have acquired and the more options that you have at your disposal, the better positioned you are to make a better choice in the long run, maximizing your overall benefit. Exploration provides experience, experience enables contrast, contrast breeds wisdom. Wisdom leads to better decision-making. And better decisions result in a happier and more fulfilling life.
I believe that it is definitely in your best interest to explore as much as possible while you still can, especially when the risks are much lower and the potential for a negative impact is a lot less severe. Then, when the time to exploit finally arrives, you will have a better foundation to work off of and you will have a much better understanding of who you really are, what you really want, and most importantly, what is actually available to you.
Life is too short for us to get comfortable. We are only given one shot at this, let’s not waste it with complacent tendencies.
Explore now, exploit later.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” – T. S. Eliot
Special shoutout to Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, the authors of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions – The book that initially inspired this post.