Explore and Exploit
Or how to develop original ideas, ignite a hot streak, and enjoy yourself while doing it
The best way to ignite hot streaks (clusters of high-impact work) in your life is to operate in “Explore then Exploit” cycles.
This notion hit me like a ton of bricks a few months ago when I came across this paper analyzing the careers of dozens of impactful figures across a range of creative (including scientific) domains. I definitely recommend a skim if you have 10 minutes. This became a bit of a rabbithole that I went down. I found more research, some probability theory, and some interesting approaches to how you can measure decision making processes under uncertainty. What I really came away with though is an idea that I’ve incorporated into my personal set of root First Principles.
One way to think about life is as a constant struggle between optimizing for value today (Exploitation) vs optimizing for value in the future (Exploration).
Biologists certainly think this way. So do economists. And so do self-help sites I guess?
Many people don’t have the luxury of choice to deliberately prioritize one over the other, but in the times that we do it’s a tough decision to make because money now vs money later is hard to value if you don’t know where to start.
Obviously, this is obvious except for me it wasn’t because I knew delayed gratification can be good, but I had never thought about when it’s good vs when it’s not.
So when is it good vs not?
I think it’s a balance, mostly.
This can be unbounded wandering around stuff you’re interested in or it can be more focused if you want (like I’ll only read stuff about my industry today, but not specifically the about the problem I’m trying to solve). The only rule I’ve implemented that I think is necessary is to just keep going. It’s easy to do a little then go back to what you “should” be focusing on.
This isn’t the point, the point is to expand the edges of your thinking!
I’ve been doing this for Web3 research and it’s sometimes overwhelming, but it’s really broadened my exposure to interesting ideas and projects happening in the ecosystem right now. It’s really hard to calculate the option value of this knowledge, but I have already seen some of my “inconsequential” reading turn into really valuable information to bring to conversations with people in the space.
This is when you lean in. All the fun and cool and interesting distractions in your day that are super appealing now that you’ve decided you’re going to buckle down and focus now? Ignore them. They had their chance. Now it’s just you and the rich vein of idea minerals in front of you and you’re going to strip mine that baby until it’s just a desolate quarry that kids will jump into when it fills up with water over the next few decades!
The point here is that you’ve already spent the time building up your supply of Good Ideas and now you’re well prepared to take advantage of them.
I’ve done this in micro-bursts in Web3 for writing so far and it’s created real value for me. I’m excited to keep going and see how to thoughtfully focus further.
Things to Note
As an in-process explore/exploiter, here’s my “operator’s notes”:
There is a pleasant and beautiful structure to explore/exploit activities
It nests exceedingly well (hence the micro-exploits above)
It feels really good to let yourself pull that “explore” thread
The transition between exploring and exploiting is the HARDEST thing to nail. Sometimes you want to just keep exploring and sometimes you want to dive in too early. I think this only gets easier to get right with practice.
Ideas stack and click and slot into each other in strange and wonderful ways. If you focus too narrowly in your exploration you will miss things that will make you and your ideas better
I hope this added value to your day.
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