Explore and Exploit for Fun and Profit

One of my deeply held beliefs is that people, in general, don’t make enough changes in their lives. They tend to live for too long in the same city, go too frequently to the same restaurants, date the wrong person for too long, and continue working in jobs they hate for far too long.

All of these are inertia problems — what’s known is comfortable and the unknown seems, if not scary, then just generally exhausting. Just imagining the stress of going through a breakup makes you say “not now, maybe next week” — and the same for looking for a new job, moving to a new city, etc. It’s just easier to keep doing what you’ve always been doing.

The problem of course is that, for many people, there are lots of ways that they could change their lives to be more fulfilling, rewarding, and just happier but far too few people actually make those changes.

While I too often wait too long to make changes in my life, I really try to follow an explicit explore-exploit strategy in both my personal and professional life that has worked out pretty well for me.

For those less familiar with the machine learning literature, the idea behind explore and exploit is simple. It’s basically any class of algorithm that follows two stages:

  • The explore stage: you look around to try to figure out what areas or strategies are most effective in whatever situation you’re in
  • The exploit stage: once you find a winning strategy, you hammer it home

It’s just that simple! But of course there are trade-offs. If you explore too much and never exploit then you can end up worse off because you never actually focus on reaping the benefits of all of your hard-exploring. If you don’t explore enough and start exploiting to soon, then you might have just-missed a strategy that could make you way better off.

My contention is that most people are doing way too much exploiting and not enough exploring to find ways of living that could make them much happier in the long run.

A great example from my own life is moving to Mexico City — about three years ago I packed up all of my things in New York City, stored them in a storage unit in East New York, and jumped on a plane to Mexico City with two suitcases to try to see what it’d be like to live there (I had never even visited Mexico City before then).

It turned out that this was one of the best decisions of my life — I’m so much happier here than I was in New York and if I never would have tried it I’d have never known! Of course, lots of people wouldn’t be happier living in Mexico City, and that’s fine, but the point is that in order to know if you’d be happier living one way or another, you have to get out there and try new things. The more new things you try, the more you’ll know about yourself and what possibilities there are to live a happier life.

It’s important to strike the right balance — there probably is some other city in the world where I’d be even happier living, but I’m not going to try to live in every single city on the planet in order to find the absolute best one. I’m happy in Mexico City and I’m shifting into the exploit phase of my time here: perfecting my Spanish, building deeper relationships, and just generally putting down roots.

I can talk about my professional career in the same way. I’ve always said that if I’m not jumping out of bed with excitement to go to work, then I should quit and find a new job. And I’ve pretty much always followed that rule — after a month or two of feeling uninspired by a job, I’ll kick off a new job search and start looking for the next new thing.

And, when I’m looking for that next new thing, I’m really trying to explore. I consciously try to choose jobs that I know are going to push me out of my comfort zone and to do things that I haven’t done before. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but with every experience, I learn more about:

  • What I’m uniquely good at
  • What I’m good at that creates value for other people

Figuring this out requires a lot of iteration! It took me a long time to both realize that I’m uniquely good at teaching and hone the raw skills that I had into something usable. Only this year did I really start to exploit that skill by launching Analytics Engineers Club with my partner Claire. It’s going really, really well (in the larger part due to Claire, I should note) but doing it successfully required combining quite a few unique skills that I’ve been able to cultivate over my long and quite bizarre career. These skills include:

  • Technical pedagogy experience
  • Working with AWS EC2 instances
  • Setting up marketing website with WordPress
  • SEO and content marketing
  • B2B and B2C Sales strategies

It’s only because I’ve pushed myself to try weird new ways of working that I wouldn’t have even considered doing when I was starting my professional career 11 years ago that I’ve been able to make this project so successful.

Taking an intentional approach to using the explore-and-exploit strategy in your life can have huge impacts — I’d encourage everyone to think about what they can do to push themselves outside of their comfort zone and start finding better and happier ways to live and work.

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By michael