Exploration vs Exploitation
I’ve been experimenting with a daily email with Colin Nagy called Why Is This Interesting? This is from today’s edition. If you’re interested in checking it out, drop me a line (I’ll post something here when we launch in publicly).
I really liked this post from Richard Huntington aka Adliterate. It’s about the value of deep work, but the gist is captured in this mantra: “You are not paid to be on top of things, you are paid to get to the bottom of them.” (This was inspired by a quote from computer scientist Donald Knuth about email: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”)
Why is this interesting?
If you’ve spent any time working in the age of e-mail (nevermind Slack) you’ve encountered this challenge. One of the things I shared with everyone who started at Percolate for a long time was this post from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham about the schedule a “maker” keeps vs a manager. The point is that the manager has their days broken into tiny bits, 30 minute or one hour meetings, while the maker needs long uninterrupted focus time to do their work. When the manager forces the maker into their schedule they are surprised that the work can’t get done.
One way to think about this divide is as something computer scientists call exploration vs exploitation. The manager is an explorer, looking at information across many different areas, while the maker is an exploiter, using that information to go deep in just one. It’s a little like the story from the Greek poet Archilochus about the fox and the hedgehog: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (if you’re not familiar with the parable, here’s a good primer from NPR).
As Brian Christian points out in his book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, there’s actually tons of interesting stuff that lives in this tension. Do you go to the restaurant you like or try the new one that just opened? Should you load up an old favorite on Spotify or see what they’ve chosen for you this week? The answer, as we have all figured out and computer science has proven, is it depends. To figure out the best approach you’ve also got to know the time limit. In simplified terms, if you have lots of time left, exploration makes sense, if you’re approaching deadline, exploitation is optimal.
This also explains why people like Sports Gene author David Epstein are pushing to stop early specialization. Childhood is prime exploration time and no matter what Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours might state, the opportunity is to use the abundance of time to stay shallow (Gladwell actually agrees with this). “Childhood,” as developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik explains, “gives you a period in which you can just explore possibilities, and you don’t have to worry about payoffs because payoffs are being taken care of by the mamas and the papas and the grandmas and the babysitters.” For the rest of us, the struggle stays real.