Exploration Exploitation Tradeoff

We all know that we should explore. And when it’s really necessary, we do.

Say you’re a freshman in your first few weeks at college. You energetically explore the social space. It’s necessary.

But the turn from exploration to exploitation happens all too quickly.

Friend groups form in the first few weeks, and so if you searched out of neediness and hope for social validation and security you lose that part of your motivation. The biological drive for acceptance satisfied, your energies redirect towards academics or whatever other engagements animate you.

This is the point at which a shift is made between exploration and exploitation.

The beautiful thing about exploration is that there’s little to lose and everything to gain. Choices have option value. It’s an option with huge upside, where if the person you meet is amazing you get to keep them for years and years, and if they’re not your loss is a short conversation.

But when the shift happens too quickly and too permanently, you find yourself in a trap. Locked into a sub-optimal equilibria. There are now communities of ideas and people you’ll never realize exist, there are qualities of friends that you lose the chance to explore. And so notice when you’ve stopped exploring in a space where the marginal value to exploring is still huge.

Hitting this tradeoff correctly is critical because this situation exists in the most important aspects of our lives. Deep relationships, conversations, career. It also exists in the mundane - what space we work in, where we eat, what we read, what information we consume. And our propensity to explore determines our value structure and important parts of who we are.

Once exploration has been done, you have some intuitive data on the quality of your options. The glorious advantage of exploitation is that you get to take the upside - you can choose the best career, life partner, friendships, whatever it is - out of everything that you’ve explored.

Exploration also lets you dump weaker options. Triage. By eliminating wasteful ideas and behavior from your life you improve quality. And the more you explore, the more you’ll be able to focus your finite attention, time and energy on extremely high quality experiences.

And so with every experience you face a choice. Do you explore, and learn something new? Or do you exploit, choosing what has worked before? If you’re far off on either end of this tradeoff in any critical part of your life, dramatic improvements are there for the picking.