This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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A real-world manifestation of the exploration-exploitation dilemma can be found in the choice we all have to make between being a specialist, which is a path dominated by exploitation, or a generalist, which involves a focus on exploration.
In my course on competition, I tell students that specialists tend to win in competitive games. I still stand by that, but only because I was talking about the specific context of formal games. The real world is much more complex and therefore the answer is murkier.
The problem is that the world is a fascinating place, and there’s so much to learn. Even if you spend all day learning and probing around, you’ll continue to uncover knowledge that makes you feel like you’ve been wandering in ignorance your whole life. This tends to pull us towards becoming generalists.
On the other hand, endless exploration is not a feasible choice for those of us living within a capitalist framework. Nobody is going to pay you to read and think all day, unless you already have a pool of resources to work with.
This is why people who spend their whole lives immersed in creative activities tend to either be rich already, or benefit from some kind of patronage (the Medicis financed many of the great Italian Renaissance artists, for example).
That means most people are expected to become specialists, which is why there’s such an emphasis on professional training.
Going to college and spending time climbing a corporate ladder is the common path for demonstrating expertise within a given domain. Kids in school aren’t encouraged to explore much, and instead are told it’s best to pick a pathway that’ll guarantee a healthy income in the future.
There are some problems with this. First of all, a contradiction lives at the very core of all this: you can’t find the best exploitation paths without exploring first. I’ve covered this before in great detail, but it’s worth reiterating that exploration and exploitation feed off of one another.
By telling people to simply take the path of least resistance — to exploit a known payoff schedule, like going into investment banking — employers, teachers and other authority figures are nipping potential in the bud.
As a society, we’ve decided that securing an income in an established industry matters more than developing new ways forward.
Secondly, there’s a serious risk associated with deep levels of specialization: path dependence. If you go far enough down a path, it becomes near-impossible to turn around and reorient yourself in the world.
For example, if you’d spent 20 years becoming an expert in typewriters right as the personal computer boom began, you’d be in trouble. The payoff for your expertise would have evaporated, and adjusting to this new world would be a tall order (to put it lightly).
This obsession with specialization helps people who are already part of the status quo, and hurts those who don’t fit into the molds those with power hold sacred. It’ll get you a job, but it might also shut off your capacity to live the way you want to.
I remember one time I saw a job ad for a company in the credit card industry, and one of the “Nice to Haves” was, no kidding, “A deep passion for credit cards.” All I could think when I read that was, “What kind of psychopath has a deep passion for credit cards?”
The answer is simple: people who want to get jobs in the many modern industries can’t just be knowledgeable about credit cards (or whatever domain they want to work in), they have to be so specialized that it seeps deep into the fabric of their personal lives.
To put it another way: the world wants you to not only know something about what you do for a living, it wants you to be dominated by that subject until it consumes your whole identity. I can’t help but see this as a problem.
But, again, we come to a quandary. This is the world we live in, and it won’t change overnight. What can a single person do to give themselves a chance at success?
My suggestion here — and it is only a suggestion, because I don’t think this can be fully fleshed out and resolved in a single 5 Minute Concepts episode — is to think about the intersections of your interests. Where do different skills and ideas overlap to create something that could be viewed as “useful” to others?
It’s not an easy task to accomplish, as I can tell you from experience. But if you can come up with some kind of mix that’s both unique and valuable, you’ll find that you’ve flipped the whole formula on its head.
You will be specialized because of your generalist tendencies, and not specialized in spite of them.