Exploration and exploitation

“Should I explore something new, or exploit something I’ve found satisfying before?”

This is a valuable dichotomy and a mental model I’ve come across in a book called “Algorithms to Live By”, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

We can position many endeavours within a spectrum, where one end is purely new experiences and the other consists of things we repeat. The things we repeat, we can either improve them or dilute their effect on us. That depends on the same dichotomy, but on a more granular level.

We start everything in exploration mode. In childhood, we try out different things until we can safely deduce something is worth doing again and again. Slowly, we build a collection of skills, habits, and customs that we can repeat and exploit.

In general, the older we get, the less exploration we do, and the more our exploits begin to define us.

Connections in the brain
When learning something new, we create synapses between brain cells, and when thinking about something old, we reinforce old ones. Whether we explore new things or exploit old ones, our brains keep changing. It seems clear to me that we must both create new connections and reinforce the beneficial old ones. In short, both exploration and exploitation are required to upkeep a healthy mind.

I imagine some exploration and much exploitation used to be quite natural for a large part of the time our species has developed. In modern times we can go full-tilt to either end of the spectrum by repeating a monotonic existence day after day or bombard our minds with a neverending stream of new data. The former scenario can lead to mental decay and the latter to burnout.

Mastery vs cross-disciplinary knowledge
I can distinguish two types of exploration, the other is a deepening exploration of some already well-established knowledge, and the other one is the exploration of something completely new.

Exploration of one topic can lead to mastery. Investigation of several subjects can help us see patterns shared between different disciplines, creating a cross-disciplined unique knowledge and worldview.

I am more interested in the cross-disciplined approach, though both are useful, and both critical within the scope of a functioning society.

Only exploitation
We repeat something we know and do not bother to learn anything new. The brain prunes unused connections and fortifies the ones that make it a slave to habits.

Only exploration
Sometimes we might compulsively look for new things and never be content enough with anything, in fear of missing out on something. We start stuff but never finish them, and never find something worth repeating, nor do we specialise in anything. With this kind of an exploration strategy, we can end up a generalist or someone with a set of entirely unrelated skills and experience.

Both exploration and exploitation
It’s entirely possible to exploit one thing and simultaneously explore completely different things. A varied set of explored knowledge can help us understand the world differently, and provide a possibility to make unique connections between quotidian issues. Exploration outside-but-close to one’s domain of speciality can thus widen their realm of our knowledge, and transform us to a domain-specific generalist.

Combinations within one domain
Only exploitation
The worst thing in my opinions is for us to exploit something without widening or deepening our knowledge about it. We will end up bored, dull, and eventually obsolete and replaceable within this exploited field.

Only exploration
Instead, we should strive for lifelong learning, no matter whether that learning is within one specific avenue or several. But if we don’t exploit our previously learned knowledge or skills, we face the risk of missing out on different opportunities, becoming too academic or losing our believability.

Both exploration and exploitation
One can both explore and exploit within one confined area. Whenever people get to utilise their knowledge and simultaneously learn more about the relevant subject, they reinforce what they’ve already learned and can build upon it. This combination is the optimal approach for hobbies and conceivably most work.

Going into old age, I believe our explorational instincts diminish, and we fall into a trap where we try out new things less and less. The lessening of exploration is detrimental to the mind. While it’s obvious we start our lives in 100% exploration mode and soon begin to exploit what we learn; it is not so obvious we should limit the rate of exploitation and upkeep exploration even after academic years.

Some professions require people to continually learn new things up to exhaustion, while others make people automatons. In either case, people should find a balance within their jobs, and complement that balance with leisurely hobbies and private social life.

Lifelong exploration and learning are essential for the brain. They likely prevent memory problems and dullness. Exploitation gives us results, perhaps a better salary, a sense of accomplishment, most likely some sense of worth, as well as a break for your psyche.


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