Would you rather stay where you are and get the most out of your current situation, or move ahead to put yourself in a different situation from which you could get more out of? We face this question in many areas of life:
- In learning, we can choose to either specialize in a certain field and hone specific skills to become a masterful expert, or broaden our horizon and explore unknown territories to become a well-rounded generalist. (We know from artificial intelligence that the best approach is a prudent trade-off between exploitation and exploration.)
- In business, we can choose to focus either on optimizing, say, our existing products, supply chain, and marketing, or on innovating to create novel products and services. (We know from economics that the best approach is a strategic trade-off between intensification and innovation.)
- In politics, we can vote either for a party that seeks to preserve our laws, culture, and institutions, or for one that promotes change and progress. (We know from history that the best approach is a healthy trade-off between conservatism and progressivism.)
‘To exploit’ means to enrich yourself from your current state, whereas ‘to explore’ means to move towards a potentially richer state. Neither is better than the other, for balance rules over both. Yet how you want to balance the two depends on numerous factors, including:
- What phase are you in with your life or business?
- How happy are you with your current state?
- For how long will you be able to retain that happiness?
- How willing are you to take risks?
Naturally, the same questions apply to the personal conflict of spirituality against achievement:
- Pursuing outer growth, you may explore new ways to success—you see doors opening, promising you a more glorious future, and you set goals to march ahead and achieve. This is when you feel fire in your soul and you say, “I have found my path.”
- Pursuing inner growth, you may exploit the present moment—you see that you already are where you want to be, with your life, and with no need to rush anywhere, no need to look for anything more. This is when you feel peace in your soul and you say, “I have arrived.”
Balancing fire with peace happens on numerous timescales: morning versus evening, workday versus weekend, spring versus autumn, youth versus old age,… And while the wisdom traditions in the West as in the East are typically fonder of the latter, urging us to accept what is, we shall also respect our hopeful ardor of active discovery, urging us to seek or bring about what might be.
But why, you wonder, do I bother to write down such trivial insights? Well, it is to remind myself and you, dear reader, that what we commonly label “wisdom” or, more precisely, “wise advice” is never true or false—because “to explore, or to exploit” will always be the question, and its answer a matter of balance, and of time and circumstance and taste.