Exploring vs. exploiting

Specificity and focus are praised in our culture. For good reason, of course—in some cases, specificity helps us get to the finish line, and focus enables us to actually get things done. Sometimes we really are spread too thin, ineffectively juggling between several projects and subsequently making meaningful progress on none of them.

Last year, I wrote in Lifehacker that specific goals had a shortcoming: “Being specific means ignoring some great options that you don’t even know about yet.”

That’s one of the great benefits of exploration, which some might negatively label “distraction.” When a person focuses too much, and shuts out distraction, they don’t open their mind to what they’re experiencing in the moment, which means they unintentionally shut out creative options and possibilities. 

They’re working with their metaphorical—or literal—door closed, exploiting their time and bolstering their short-term productivity, at the cost of long-term relevance. Because they’re not paying attention, they don’t pick the right problems to solve, or they don’t nurture new options and opportunities. (I wrote more about this for Forge.)

Annie Duke writes in Quit, “When the ants first get to a territory, they’re exploring it for opportunities. Once they find an opportunity, a high-quality food source, they start to exploit that. But some percentage of them never stop exploring. That allows them to discover backup plans. Those backup plans are really good to have when the ants are forced to quit, when the ants get unlucky and the food source goes away. But just as important, sometimes when they’re searching for a backup plan, they find something even better than their Plan A.”

It’s always worth gathering information, nurturing other projects, and putting together some backup plans. You’ll need to define what success means to you for each of them, because you won’t make overnight progress; instead, you’re best served picking projects that you can learn critical lessons from, even if you fail.

Even if you’re focused and making the most of exploiting—recognizing the full potential of—an opportunity, look up every so often and explore.

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