My wife and I are methodically working our way through the menu at our favorite pizza place. Some of their creations are better than others, but even the “bad” ones are pretty doggone good.
Each time we order, we order two kinds: a favorite we love and a new one we haven’t tried before. (Yes, we have a checklist.) This way, we’re going to enjoy our meal(s) no matter how the new pizza turns out. If it’s a little less than we were hoping for, we still have a really good pizza to enjoy with it. If it’s absolutely incredible, we have another favorite.
We’re cheating at the explore/exploit problem a little bit, but life doesn’t have to be either-or. It can be and. And this is a good way we’ve found to maximize our pizza enjoyment. We get the benefits of exploiting a favorite pizza while still exploring new pizzas.
Two of our basic human needs are the need for Safety and Security and the need for Variety. Those two needs alone will often pull us in different directions. That’s not a bad thing.
The familiar satisfies our need for Safety. We like what is familiar to us. It’s comfortable. We can turn a decision or a routine over to our basal ganglia, saving precious decision power. We get to enjoy something without having to think about it. More fun, less effort.
Then there’s the need for Variety. No matter how good our favorite pizza is, there might be a better one out there! So Variety encourages us to explore. Go looking. Go find the better pizza. Variety itself isn’t even that bothered if the new options we explore aren’t that good—it finds joy and satisfaction in the exploration itself. It’s Safety that’s going to enjoy any new favorites we find.
An interesting cycle develops between these two. Variety draws us to the unknown—to try new things. We step outside of our comfort zone and Variety is sated. Then we have a choice. We can either retreat back to our old comfort zone or we can grow our comfort zone.
You’ve felt this dynamic. Remember the first day at a new job, school, or club? You felt like you had no idea what you were doing, right? Variety took you someplace you hadn’t been before. There was part of you that thought maybe this was a mistake.
But another part of you knew you needed to do this. You were moving forward, even if you were a little uncomfortable. Your need for Variety gave you the strength to stick it out until you learn and establish a sense of Safety and Security in this new place.
Remember that the need for Variety has different names. That’s Dr. Murray Banks’ term for it. He was a psychiatrist in the 1950s. Abraham Maslow called it the need for Self-Actualization, aka growth. Dr. Stephen R. Covey called it the need to Learn. I call it the need to Sharpen the Saw—to get better at doing what you do.
Eventually, we can start to feel like we’re stuck in a rut. Our need for Variety is no longer fulfilled, and we feel a need to move on to bigger and better things. So we step out and start over. It’s risky—we may even feel like our need for Survival is threatened—but it‘s how we grow.