“Exploration” and “Exploitation” are two broad buckets for work-related activities and also for phases of our professional and personal lives. Exploration is about generalized learning, discovering opportunities, generating ideas, and playfully experimenting with them. In contrast, exploitation is about staying focused on implementing your vision and creating value based on what you know without getting distracted by the next shiny idea. These concepts work on different scales. For example, if you need to find an API or a tool for your work, you might spend a day researching and trying out other options and then implement the chosen one on the next day. On a broader scale, you may take a few weeks or months off to find a new career opportunity that you plan to stay in for a few years or even decades.
On any level, you need to find the right balance. There can be a huge benefit in using a fair amount of time to find the best option. On the other hand, sometimes exploration, learning, and research is merely procrastination by another name. You feel like not having enough information when the hidden truth is that you’re just not willing to make a choice, as that means saying “No” to other options. Overdosing on inspiration and serendipity can be a poison for productivity.
During the pandemic, I actively participated in the Ness Labs and Interintellect online communities, which gave me a lot of exposure to new ideas and people. I expressed gratitude for them in my first post this year. And while I am genuinely grateful for this experience, I have to look at them critically as well. Communities like these that cover broad or meta topics have a bias towards exploration. There’s a constant influx of new members, and many people join them at turning points in their life when they want to figure out what to do and need inspiration or when they need to implement a “restart” in a new career and learn new skills. In other words, the most active members are in the exploration phase, and that’s a potential distraction when you’re in an exploitation phase. Or worse, it creates the illusion that life is about perpetual exploration and infinite optionality, which it isn’t, at least not if you want to build something meaningful and innovative.
Exploration is a fun and seemingly low-risk activity. It is also a great way to connect with new people and keep an open mind, fulfilling our innate needs for human connection and intellectual stimulation at the same time. It can even be a high-value activity, but it can be low-value as well, and that makes it a risk if it takes time and energy away from higher-value activities. I am an introvert who realizes that socializing draws from the same energy reserves that I need for individual creative pursuits, requiring me to be especially mindful about it.
If you’ve read until here, you may expect an announcement that I’m leaving a community. I have no such plans, but I want to pay more attention to my interactions in 2021, as I have the intention to improve my focus, something with which I struggle.