Protagonist rule #12: Always keep exploring

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Whenever I talk to people that are (even) older than me and ask them about how they spend their time, there often is a reflection along the lines of “The days go slow, but the years go fast.” Especially in retirement, it seems that the number of things people spend time on is quite limited in scope, making the day go by slowly. However, as there’s little to mark the passing of time, the years pass quickly.

As discussed earlier, there’s significant danger in getting stuck in your comfort zone. We stop growing and developing and we die before we’re dead, as the saying goes. Whereas rule #6 is concerned with not getting stuck in your comfort zone, this rule is about how to act effectively outside of it.

One helpful metaphor, at least for me, to think about exploration is AI algorithms, especially reinforcement learning. Many AI algorithms use a variable, typically ε(epsilon), to enforce a balance between exploitation, where you use known knowledge to get a known outcome, and exploration, where you experiment with actions that have an unknown outcome.

Initially, ε will be a high number, close to 100 percent, but as the algorithm learns useful ways of acting in each specific situation, ε will be lower until it reaches almost 0 percent. That means that in the vast majority of cases, the algorithm will take an action with a known benefit. But even in the most trained states, it will still occasionally take a completely random action to evaluate its effect. This is done to avoid the algorithm ending up in a local optimum.

The challenge when applying this to our own lives is that, especially as we age, we’ve tried out many different things and believe we’ve learned what we like and what we don’t. Consequently, our natural reaction is to lower our ε to zero as we’re busy doing what we know we’re good at.

A confounding factor is that we tend to experience exploration as very inefficient since many of the experiments will fail to deliver a positive outcome. In exploitation, 99 percent of our actions lead to positive outcomes and the variation is more in terms of the amount of positive outcome. In exploration, we simply have to accept that 90 percent or more of the things we try out are going to have a negative outcome. We wasted time, energy and money on something that turned out to not be a good experience. So, after having tried a couple of things and feeling like we’ve been swatted on the nose, we’ll readjust our ε back to zero and stop exploring. As the saying goes, your comfort zone is a beautiful place.

The problem is, of course, that if you never break out of your comfort zone, you never learn something new. You’ll never change unless you explore. This is the famous deadlock so many people are in: I’m busy, but bored. I could try this thing, but I most likely won’t like it and feel like I’ve wasted my time. Why bother?

In rule #6, I talked about some of my strategies – edging, context switching and the beginner’s mind. However, there are fundamental issues underlying our resistance to exploring that aren’t addressed by these strategies. There are at least three worth discussing: wasting time, reputation and our self-image.

First, as I mentioned before, exploration is in many ways a waste of time. In our Western culture, efficiency and maximizing the return on investment of our time are held in high regard. Hence, wasting time feels like a lost opportunity that should have resulted in better outcomes. Hence, we shy away from wasting time. The problem with this reasoning is that the things we otherwise spend our time on often also are a waste of time by other metrics. Publishing article 501 after having published 500 articles earlier in your career may feel like a nice dopamine kick (I still get it), but the amount of growth and development is highly limited. If you’re in sales and manage to close customer 1,001 after having closed 1,000 other sales, are you still growing or developing? Or, as a software engineer checking in code for the 10,000th time, did you actually benefit from this personally? The thought I often ponder is whether doing the same thing over and over again isn’t the real waste of time. It’s not the exploration that wastes our time, but the things we do again and again and know we’re good at.

Second, being the social animals that we are, our reputation and the way we’re viewed by the people around us are major drivers of our behavior. The problem is that people are lazy by nature (yes, me included) and like to pigeonhole others into neat boxes that don’t require them to spend much intellectual energy trying to characterize you. And we respond to that and tell stories about ourselves that make it easy for others to do so. Just study yourself next time you’re at a social event and someone asks you what you do. The script will execute just like that. Exploration by definition steps outside the box we occupy in other people’s minds and it will feel uncomfortable to act and behave in ways that don’t ‘fit.’ What might other people say? My favorite quote here is from Steve Jobs in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech: “You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart.”

Finally, our biggest critic, by orders of magnitude, is the voice in our own head. Shaped by our upbringing, schooling and key people in our lives, we have a self-image of who we are and what we do. That self-image creates a fundament and sense of security, but it also forms a prison that can be incredibly hard to break out of. Many things we decline to explore because we view ourselves as not the person who would do something like that. Developing and growing means breaking out of that prison and developing a new, more flexible self-image that allows for more freedom in the exploration we do.

To make it concrete and as an example: I recently joined a trial day at a local paragliding school. I’ve always been interested in flying but for many reasons, including the ones above, I never followed up on it. Until now. Part of the day was a tandem flight with an experienced pilot, which included being winched up to 300 meters altitude and a 10-minute flight. I’ll admit to being scared hanging there with the pilot behind me finding a thermal and deciding to take us up even higher. I have a certain amount of need for control and I had none in that situation. Still, despite the discomfort, I’ve now signed up for the first course to learn to paraglide. If it scares you, it might be just what you need to do!

As we gain age and experience, we tend to reduce the amount of exploration we do and spend more and more time on the things we know we like and are good at. The consequence is that we stop growing, developing and self-actualizing. Instead, we need to keep exploring and trying new things. We need to be aware of the perception that we’re wasting our time (we’re not), what other people might think of us (nobody thinks about you, they only think about themselves) and the voice in our own head (our worst critic and perhaps the hardest to overcome). Only when we break through the fundamental issues holding us back, we can start to really explore. As Rochel Wolchin so beautifully said: “If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet.”

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