Explore vs. Exploit

“Should I Stay or Should I Go” — The Clash (1982)

Trade-offs are hard. The question of how to choose between the thing one knows and a potentially better unknown arises in so many aspects of our lives on a recurring basis. 

Should I stay in this job, or look for a new one? Should I stay in this (romantic) relationship, or find someone better? Should I stay in this city, or move to a new place? Do I invest in my existing (high-school or college) friendships or build new ones?

Algorithms to Live By, a book by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths published in 2016 addresses this challenge. Their advice: “Explore when you have time to use the resulting knowledge, exploit when you’re ready to cash in.” 

Albeit helpful advice, this statement is not a specific tool for decision-making. So what other tools exist to help us make decisions? The JourneyCxO community exists to support people in career decisions including transitions to new roles, companies or entire fields. Here are some thought exercises I recommend in the context of career transitions.


Regret Minimization Framework 

Popularized by Jeff Bezos (see this short video link), the framework asks people to imagine what they would likely regret more in their old agemaking the decision to change or staying the course.


Feedback Loop Length

Explore when the feedback loops are short. This suggests talking with people doing the role you are considering. The aim is to quickly gather knowledge, to ask them questions you are curious about, and to get specific feedback on what they would tell their younger self based on their lived ‘career experience.’


Put Risk in the Context of Your Commitments to Others

Commitment to others means, in this context, how much your family (partner, children etc.) depend on your current income to pay the bills. Independence is typically greater when we are young adults (under 30) and or no longer supporting children through school and college (over 50). 


Explore When the Upsides are Large

Is there an asymmetric upside potential to the new opportunity? Not just in the form of earnings (equity upside) but also in the form of life satisfaction and fulfillment in the job.


Ask Yourself, Can I Combine the Two?

In doubling-down in my current job / organization, can I find ways to explore new areas? This is an area where great managers are able to find ways to help their employees combine the feelings of mastery from exploiting their competencies with the joy of learning from exploring new areas.


Focus on the Choice that Makes You Feel Uncomfortable

 Some of us value routine and dislike change. I put myself in that camp. Others believe the grass is always greener on the other side and want to try new things. If you are more uncomfortable with one choice, dedicate more conscious time to thinking about why it might actually work out well and be the right decision. Try to counteract your natural biases.


Am I Willing to Invest the Effort?

Success in any area of life involves effort. And overcoming challenges. Things won’t magically get better without each of us making a sustained effort. So whatever you choosestaying or goingremember that you will need to put in the work. And be sure you are ready to do that, for a reasonable period of time (months or even years) to get the outcome you want.

We all face these challenges repeatedly.

Generally every two to four years in our career progression. Life is full of change, both in what we value and want out of life and in what options are available to us.

I like rules to live by as much as the next person. But, in the case of ‘explore vs. exploit’, there is no right answer. For every person, the right mix of exploration vs. exploitation changes over time as one enters different life stages.

Aditya Dehejia

Adi’s experiences as a CFO and HR leader in start-up companies inspired him to start the CxO Leadership Accelerator. He saw firsthand the challenges in building a satisfying career, the importance of leaders in developing people, and the difficulty in building broad business acumen while excelling in your functional role. Prior to his operating career in start-ups, Adi held roles in a growth capital investment firm and in the corporate development and strategy department at a Fortune 500 company. Adi is an active volunteer mentor in the FirstRound Capital and TechStars networks as well as within his University alumni communities. Adi was born in India and immigrated to the US at age ten. He attended Princeton University (graduated with a degree in Politics) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in the suburbs of New York City and has two adult sons and two lovable, crazy dogs.

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