July 15, 2023

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The Explore versus Exploit Framework

At a glance


Today’s Fast Summary:

  • The explore versus exploit framework comes from computer science but lends well to decision-making and finding career pursuits.

  • Exploration and exploitation are two different ‘modes’ of the mind.

  • When you’re in explore mode, you’re exploring opportunities and possibilities. When you’re in exploit mode, you use your knowledge and apply it to high-ROI projects.

  • To be successful, you must explore before exploiting.


How to build a life you’re passionate about: The Explore versus Exploit Framework

“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.”
- Anthony J. D'Angelo

The explore versus exploit framework comes from computer science but lends well to decision-making and finding career pursuits.

The framework is rooted in experimentation and investment.

Explore Versus Exploit requires you to ask, “When should you experiment?” and, “When is it time to invest?

The Principles of the Explore Versus Exploit Framework

Exploration and exploitation are two different ‘modes’ of the mind.

Exploration can be compared to the imagination. When you’re in explore mode, you’re exploring opportunities and possibilities.

For those who have a wide variety of interests, explore mode is exciting. It’s like a personal testing phase.

An example of this might look like an intern cycling through different departments of an organization. Or like a young person trying out different careers before choosing one they’re passionate about, skilled with, and can leverage financially (their hedgehog concept).

These people are exploring their possibilities before choosing one that ‘fits.’

Exploitation mode is more efficient. When we’re in exploit mode, we use the knowledge we gained during explore mode. We put this knowledge to use and engage in high-ROI projects.

We exploit what we learned during the explore phase, and move deeper into what we’ve decided we’re passionate about.

An intern who chooses a highly specialized position at a firm after trying other positions is in exploit mode.

In other words, a family who tries various vacation destinations before purchasing a timeshare at their favorite would be exploring, then exploiting. Someone who shops around for different shirt brands before buying and committing to one would be doing the same.

However, there is one caveat to each.

Exploitation requires an investment of time and resources.

When we spend time in the career exploration phase, we dip our toe into many options. However, few of these options are likely to work out long-term. These resources are wasted.

If you spend too much time exploring, you become bored and jump into the next activity. You don’t spend time investing in a career or hobby you truly enjoy.

When you spend too much time in the exploit phase, you don’t explore your choices. You risk becoming stuck in a career or hobby you don’t find fulfilling.

You might be content with your choice. But you spend time wondering if the grass is greener elsewhere.

Hack the Framework: Explore and Exploit

Imagine you’re playing a video game. At the game’s beginning, your character is alone on a dark screen. Everything around them—the resources, building plots, and tools—are occluded.

As your character explores the terrain, you begin to find resources to mine and farm the land. Eventually, as they move around, you find a plot suitable to build a village, and you do.

Had your character stayed in the dark and not explored the world around them, you wouldn’t have been able to build anything.

The video game analogy illustrates the explore versus exploit framework’s efficacy.

To be successful, you have to both explore and exploit. It’s tempting to want to try to master everything, but doing so is impossible. It expends precious resources.

Similarly, doing the same thing feels comfortable. But this leads to boredom and stagnation.

You can’t stay stagnant, but you can’t do it all either.

Chris Dixon, an internet entrepreneur and investor, uses the hill-climbing analogy to explain this notion.

Dixon noticed that people become stuck in fields they don’t find fulfilling because they’re allured by incremental daily progress.

He likens this to hill climbing algorithms from computer science.

Life is a landscape, and some hills are tall and others are smaller. Your goal—what you wish to pursue—is the tallest hill. Ambitious people are enamored with taking the next step on their current hill. However, they don’t stop to explore other mountains.

The algorithm’s goal is to meander around the landscape and explore the terrain. When you find the highest mountain, pursue it.

In other words, take time to learn about other ideas, professions, and people. Collect knowledge before settling on a course of action.

Explore before exploiting.

The Time Factor

Time is a key factor in choosing whether to explore or exploit.

Exploration’s value diminishes over time. The small knowledge you gain about many things is only marginally applicable. But the value of exploitation increases.

Take your future self into account. Ask yourself, “Will future me benefit from more exploration? Or would I benefit from exploiting this knowledge?”

Use your decision to maximize your time and the decision’s benefits.

Explore when you have ample time, and exploit when time becomes limited.

When do you know you’ve explored enough?

Understanding when you've explored enough is subjective and depends on your individual circumstances, goals, and preferences.

However, here are some general guidelines to help you decide when it's time to transition from exploration to exploitation.

  1. Self-awareness. You should have a clear sense of what you enjoy doing, what you're good at, and where you can make the most impact.

    When you have a solid understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and interests, you've explored enough.

  2. Diminishing returns. When the learning curve begins to plateau, it's a signal that you’ve explored sufficiently.

    If new experiences or projects are no longer providing you with valuable insights or growth opportunities, it’s time to shift your focus.

  3. Opportunity cost. If the potential benefits of exploiting your knowledge and skills outweigh the benefits of further exploration, it's time to move into the exploit phase.

    Consider the trade-offs between continuing to explore and focusing on a more specific path.

  4. Market demand. Quickly capitalizing on market demand leads to greater success and impact in your chosen field.

    If you've identified a high-demand skill or niche that aligns with your interests and talents, it’s time to exploit that opportunity.

  5. Personal goals and timelines. If you feel you've spent enough time exploring and want to start working towards more concrete milestones, it’s time to focus on exploitation.

    Reflect on your own career goals and desired timeline for achieving them.

The Explore-Exploit Balance is not a rigid, one-time transition. Your career will involve multiple cycles of exploration and exploitation as your interests evolve, new opportunities arise, or market conditions change.

Use regular self-assessment and reflection to determine when it's time to shift your focus.

This week, I ask you to reflect on a time when you had to balance exploitation and experimentation. Use the information you glean from reflection and apply it to a current situation you’re struggling to balance. For this exercise to operate effectively, you must look at your decision objectively and honestly.

  1. Think about a time in your past when you faced the Explore versus Exploit dilemma. Consider which factors played a role in your decision-making process.

    a. What prompted you to make the choice at the moment? Were you up against a deadline? Were others pressuring you to make a choice? Or, was it a personal timeline?

    b. What were the benefits of exploring? Or, would more information, experiences, or skills have been beneficial?

    c. What were the benefits of exploitation? Did market demand, personal timelines, or opportunity cost determine your decision?

    d. How did you feel at that moment? Were you anxious, nervous, or level-headed?

  1. Reflect on the decision’s efficacy.

    a. Do you feel you made the correct choice? Why do you feel this way?

    b. Did you make the wrong choice? What would’ve been the benefits of continuing to explore or exploit?

  1. Think about an Explore versus Exploit decision you’re struggling with today.

    a. Once you’ve come up with a decision, consider yourself in the future. Look at the decision you’re making as you looked at the one you already did.

    b. Would you benefit from more information, skills, knowledge, and experience? Or are you experiencing diminishing returns, high opportunity costs, or lapsing of your personal timeline?

    c. Make a choice whether to continue exploring or move to exploitation.

As Chris Dixon says, “Don’t choose the first hill. Choose the right hill.”

Explore to collect information before exploiting it to maximize your ROI.


Conclusion

I’d love to hear from you:

  • Are you a chronic explorer? Or an exploiter?

  • What did you find most surprising?

  • When will you know you’re ready to begin exploitation?

Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.

Have a wonderful Saturday, all.

Until next time,

Alex


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