will you explore or will you exploit?
Someone special asked me a question a couple of months back that’s been ringing in my ears ever since. We were killing time walking around the empty streets of downtown Berkeley before a concert when he turned to me and asked “do you think you’re going to explore or exploit?” I did a double-take. “Exploit?” I said. “Who do you think I am??”
He explained. “Exploit” was more about accumulating compounding returns — not committing a criminal offense. Did I see myself doubling down on something for a very long time, or did I want to continue following my curiosity from project to project forever? I’ve been thinking about this question more or less ever since.
Now, this is a touchy subject for me. This line of questioning has historically been leveled at me as a pointed critique. I taste-tested a lot of different career paths in college and while that’s completely normal, the intensity with which I did it wasn’t. I threw myself into each new direction with all of my being, giving the people that loved me whiplash as they struggled to keep up with what I was doing and why I needed them to believe it was the perfect fit for me. They wanted to root for me, they just didn’t know what exactly they were rooting for. I got a lot of frustrating feedback during this time. “You’re just exploring!” “I look forward to seeing you double down on something!” “Everyone goes through this!” “Who knows, maybe you’ll stay in this space, maybe you’ll end up somewhere else!” and my worst fear: “Don’t worry, this is just the path of an artist!”
I hated each and every one of these responses, for different reasons. I disliked the idea that others didn’t fully believe that my current thing was the right thing for me. I resented that they thought I was just like everyone else. But most of all — I vehemently despised being called an artist. Whether true or not, to me that meant all they thought I was capable of was making pretty things.
I’ve always known I could do more than that. But while I wanted to be able to neatly introduce myself with a respectable title or two, none of the roles I tried on lasted long. I outgrew them just as quickly as I collected them — leaving me disoriented, confused, and concerned about my ability to commit to things.
Once I started being honest with myself I realized that I was and still am, indeed, exploring. It took a while to accept that — mostly because it sure doesn’t feel like it at all. In my head, there’s a strong throughline connecting all of my work: my curiosity. I get high off the process of learning and articulating and making sense of the world around me and that high has been steady since I was small.
The interesting thing about following your curiosity is that it usually turns you into a pretty generally competent person. In many ways this is great. Generalism enables you to independently actualize incredible things — for me taking the form of film, writing, design, product, investing, etc.
But it can also be a curse — or at least wildly confusing career-wise. Generally competent people tend to have endless optionality. It’s difficult to settle on any one thing when so many other tempting opportunities keep tugging at your sleeve. Most people in this position end up doubling down on the thing they receive the most praise for — mistaking external validation for internal satisfaction. But squeezing yourself into a small, easily explainable cage you know you’ll quickly outgrow just to avoid the pain of struggling to explain who you are to other people is, in my opinion, just avoidance of facing your full potential.
For me, following my curiosity currently looks like helping companies tell their stories (with the wonderful Brie), investing in people I believe in, and obviously: writing. My happy place is what I call “manic writing mode” — a state of intense concentration where my brain ceases to remember any trace of my identity as I whittle words into a point and chisel sentences so they string together seamlessly.
But following this feeling doesn’t lead me towards anything resembling “exploitation.” How does one compound curiosity? This is why I stumble so much when asked the adjacent question “how ambitious are you?” My ambition simply isn’t a static object — it instead takes the form of an insatiable hunger for understanding in order to voice truth and (hopefully) scoot the world in a direction I believe in.
This type of ambient ambition is something I see crushing the souls of far too many currently caged curious people. It’s too easy to feel like you’re falling short when you compare your amalgamation of accomplishments to the narratives of people with literal mission statements to define and tie together their body of work with a bow. But it’s worth remembering that people only become legible when reflecting in retrospect. Steve Jobs encapsulates this well: "You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.”
I never gave a satisfactory answer to the explore vs. exploit question. I hemmed and hawed for a while and while the question asker seemed accepting of the fact that I didn’t know, I’m still not — even five months later. I don’t think any cocktail party-sized description of myself will ever feel fitting and I doubt that will ever change.
But maybe you don’t need to be explainable. Maybe the most interesting perspectives come from being willing to occupy a difficult-to-define place, even if it means sacrificing others' understanding of you. The challenge then becomes committing to occupy that place far longer than most feel comfortable — long enough to cultivate a voice out of your curiosity that is confident enough in its own continuity to tell you exactly what’s worth committing to when the time comes.
Thank you so much for writing this, Molly! I've been thinking deeply about explore vs exploit and how they connect to ambient vs applied ambition. I've taken the liberty to build on your work and create a 2x2 matrix that I'm still exploring: https://www.sindhu.live/ambition-cartography. I would love to know what you think!
I’m so glad I discovered you