We all face a dilemma. 

We know trying new things is beneficial. A life without new things from time to time is boring, stale and limiting.

But using what we already know works is also beneficial. Why look to pastures new when we can be content with what we already have?

Here lies a paradox—only seeking novelty results in constant change and no knowledge of stability but only staying with what we know leads to missing out on potential improvement.

This is the interplay between explore and exploit. Knowing how to navigate this interplay will improve your decision-making by orders of magnitude bettering your life.

The Multi-armed Bandit

Imagine you’re in a casino. You fancy playing slots so you walk to the aisle with slot machines. Once you arrive, an unanticipated problem strikes you—which slot machine to choose?

In a fair world, the slot machines would be equal but this is the real world and parity of machines isn’t the norm. What if one of the machines is on the cusp of paying out a jackpot? What if it’s instead programmed to be stingy?

This very scenario was examined by author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths in their book ‘Algorithms to Live By’. Named the ‘Multi-armed Bandit problem’, it’s a situation posed in the field of computer science and mathematics to test the explore/exploit dynamic.

So how do you maximise your winnings at this casino game? How does the answer help us improve our decision-making in lifestyle design?

We’ll examine the solutions to this but first we have to probe each part of the dynamic.

Explore Exploit Slot

Exploration: The knowledge gatherer

No matter the area of life, whatever our starting point is we need to explore.

Student at university? Explore through research, lectures and studying.

Entering a new job? Explore through inductions, meetings and networking.

New hobby? Explore through learning along with trial and error.

In new domains, everything is exploration by default. It’s the only way to acquire the knowledge we need for successful application. This is why babies and children are often the biggest explorers—they’re new to the world and need to gather as much knowledge as fast as possible.

But how long should we keep exploring?

As long as you can.

Most people don’t explore enough in life.

They don’t network with new people because their current contacts ‘feel’ sufficient.

They don’t learn new career skills because that requires effort and they’re complacent with their constant salary.

Compared to our ancestral past, human lifespans have increased significantly in the last couple of centuries. This means at whatever age you’re reading this, you likely have many years ahead of you. Many years to learn, find and accumulate resources and knowledge to better your life.

Contrary to expectations, learning doesn’t stop after formal education in schools and universities. It never ends. It’s a lifelong endeavour.

Exploring and experimenting are some of the best ways to learn. As the author Josh Kaufman writes:

Constant experimentation is the only way you can identify what will actually produce the results you desire. Often, the best (or only) way to learn things is to jump in and try.

You learn the most from what doesn’t go well. As long as your mistakes don’t kill you, paying Attention to what doesn’t work can give you useful information you can use to discover what does. All failures are temporary-what you learn in the process helps you move forward.

Every Experiment teaches you something new, and every new lesson you learn increases your capability to accomplish great things.

Experimentation is the essence of living a satisfying, productive, fulfilling life. The more you Experiment, the more you learn, and the more you’ll achieve.

Exploring has the added benefit of being a ‘regret minimiser’. If you’ve searched far and wide for improvements in a domain of life, you won’t look back one day in the future thinking what could have been. You accumulated the knowledge you could at the time. Chances are you found opportunities from it rather than wasted time.

As I stated in my post on vagabonding: “The polar opposite of exploration (exploitation) can only be reaped if the benefits it provides have been found by exploration in the first place. Those who explore increase the likelihood that they’ll come across more opportunities and potential upside. Exploration forces us out of our comfort zones and into a phase of learning and growth. If you’re feeling too comfortable in an area of your life, it’s probably time to explore.

You’re likely reading this post to learn and discover. So chances are you want and can probably inject more exploration in your life right now. This is a step forward in the right direction since exploration is a mindset.

Explore Exploit Exploration

Exploitation: The knowledge user

What good are accumulated knowledge and resources if we can’t use them? At some point, we need to use what we’ve gathered to our benefit. This is the exploit part of the equation.

To be clear, exploit doesn’t mean taking advantage of others, using people at their expense for your gain. It’s the term used in certain academic fields to refer to leveraging something for your benefit.

In many cases, it’ll be obvious when you can exploit knowledge and resources.

Encountered a no-brainer investment opportunity? Exploit.

New well-connected acquaintance inviting you to an event? Exploit.

Friend will also be at a new travel destination you were looking at? Exploit.

In such situations, there’s no need to hang around looking for more information. The benefits from acting upon those decisions right away are plain to see.

But the reason it’s called the explore/exploit dynamic is because there’s a trade-off between doing one or the other.

How do we know when to stop exploring and exploit what we’ve learned in situations that are less obvious?

One answer is the interval makes the strategy.

If you have more time, you can spend it exploring to maximise your knowledge gains before deciding to exploit.

If you have less time, you can’t explore as much so exploiting is preferable.

As ‘Algorithms to Live By’ reveals: “Explore when you will have time to use the resulting knowledge, exploit when you are ready to cash in.

This is true at a casino or in any phase of your life. Determine the interval of time you have and decide whether you have extra time to explore or whether the briefer time remaining warrants committing to exploit.

Remember most people don’t explore enough and can miss out on potential gains by narrowing their scope of exploration. Don’t commit to exploiting early if the payout isn’t clear and obvious.

Another answer is the difference between satisficing vs maximising.

Satisficing is an approach focused on getting ‘good enough’ results.

Maximising means getting the optimal outcome.

When deciding to exploit, reflect on whether you’re doing so because what you’re using feels adequate or because you know it’s the best possible usage.

Too many people settle for satisfactory outcomes simply because they’re pragmatic. They feel putting in the time and effort to look for better is cumbersome.

But how do you know what is the best unless you’ve comprehensively searched? 

Most lifestyle outcomes can’t be measured quantitatively. The difference between better and best isn’t one of decimal points but orders of magnitude. Home A isn’t just 1.5x better than Home B, it has a substantial impact on you and your family’s wellbeing over the course of your life. Person 1 at a networking event isn’t just slightly cooler to hang out with than Person 2, he or she might transform your life in ways you don’t even know.

If you have the time, keep exploring so that when you decide to exploit, you can do so knowing you’ve put the effort in to get the best possible result.

Explore Exploit Exploitation

Applications of the Explore/Exploit dynamic

Now that we understand the interplay between explore/exploit, let’s examine practical ways to apply this to lifestyle design.


Travelling epitomises exploration. Travelling can be the medium through which we rediscover not only parts of the world but ourselves.

For this reason, travelling is always weighted towards explore over exploit. As the saying goes: “The world is your oyster”. There are so many places to discover that you might enjoy that it seems illogical to limit yourself to only a few.

However, travel is distinct from ‘tourism’ or ‘visiting’. “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” wrote G. K. Chesterton. If you know what you want to see and do before journeying to a location, you can exploit. For example, if a destination you’ve already visited has interest metrics that outdo any new location, you’re warranted in choosing that place again.

The same is true if you’re visiting people in a different country. With this purpose, we go to a country less as an explorer and more as someone who benefits from existing contacts we have there.

Restaurants and hangout spots

We all have our favourite eateries and places we like to spend time in. But odds are you only discovered your favourites by taking a chance to go to them the first time round not because you already knew about them.

The interval strategy applies here. If you’re in a place as a new traveller or nomad, work out the length of time you’re staying there and favour heavy exploration of new eateries and leisure spots (at least the first half of your stay if not more) early on. Towards the latter part of your stay, pick the best ones you’ve been to and go back to these.

If you’re a resident, it’s less about the interval strategy and more about maximising over satisficing since you have a long runway of time. For example, a local restaurant may be the best choice to keep eating at because you know the owners, get a discount every time you go there and don’t have to travel far.

But if you sense that a restaurant is ‘good enough’, consider trying somewhere else. You have nothing to lose since you can always return to your favourite. This is even truer due to the high turnover in the restaurant and leisure industry: new establishments are always created so it’s worth dabbling in them on occasion to see if they’re right for you.

Explore Exploit Restaurant

Social networks and contacts

Excluding family members, think about how you met the friends and contacts you have in your life now.

If you’re like most people, most of your friends are the people you first met when new to an area.

Most people meet their friends at university in their first year.

Most people’s favourite coworkers are the ones that were most familiar to them when they joined the company.

Most people stick with their first friends (and the friends of those friends) when new in town.

It’s easy to silo ourselves with the first sets of people who provide some degree of emotional connection. Meeting new people can feel challenging since socialising requires physical and mental effort.

Yet in a world of more than 8 billion people it seems absurd to settle for the very first people we meet merely because you liked them and they liked you before anyone else had the chance to.

No matter the size of your social network, explore by making sure you’re meeting new people every so often. Attend new events, network with peers and put yourself out there. This is important at any age but especially if you’re young.

When you’re certain your acceptance of others isn’t biased towards how soon you met them, you can indulge and leverage those connections.

It’s true that good people are hard to find. When you find someone worth their weight in gold, nurture and cherish that relationship for as long as you can—few things will be more beneficial in life.

Explore Exploit Social

Bonus: Ancestral tree and DNA relatives

Related to the topic of social networks is your very own familial lineage.

You’re probably taking advantage of the benefits your immediate family members give you already, after all they’re your kin.

But the era of big data has given us more chance than ever before to connect with wider relatives.

Many companies such as MyHeritage offer you the chance to discover your background and heritage through a DNA test. Many people are pleasantly surprised at how diverse their ethnic background and relations are than they first thought.

Best of all, these companies use big data to match blood relatives across the world who otherwise would spend their lives not knowing each other. You can discover a second or third cousin in other countries who you never knew existed.

This gives you the chance of networking with someone meaningful before you’ve even set foot in a country. Instead of going to a country without knowing anyone, you could actually have family there.

Explore whether you have wider family members in this world and leverage your opportunity to meet them.


We go through life balancing the choice of whether to explore or exploit. We can struggle with knowing when to keep searching for better gains versus stopping our search to take advantage of what we have.

Exploration is at the heart of gathering knowledge and resources. Most people under-explore and over-exploit—they narrow their search lens once something feels adequate.

Yet learning is a lifelong enterprise, those who narrow the ambit of what they learn fall behind. Explore to ensure you get the best resources possible and future-proof yourself from the regret of never having searched.

Exploitation is how we take advantage of the knowledge and resources we’ve collected. There are two approaches to know when to exploit what we’ve used over continuing to explore.

First, understand the interval determines the strategy. Consider how much time you have to explore. The shorter the interval, the more you’ll want to exploit and the longer the interval, the more you can explore before committing to exploiting.

Second, understand the difference between satisficing vs maximising. Be careful of looking to exploit when you’re only satisficing, odds are you could be maximising for better outcomes if you spent more time exploring.

The explore/exploit dynamic has huge effects on our decision-making. Whether it’s deciding where to travel/move to, how to have fun or who to socialise with, keep the explore/exploit dynamic in mind for lifestyle design and see the benefits from your improved decision-making.