To Seek or Not to Seek?

Why do we seek the new and forget the old so quickly? Habituation, no doubt. People get used to repeated exposure to the same, or similar, stimuli. In economics, this is described in the law of diminishing returns. Novelty adds extra value to objects, and over time, most objects lose their value to depreciation. Continued, prolonged, or frequent exposure results in adaptation. A once pleasurable activity transforms into an activity filled with dread and monotony. Rare is the neophobic who possesses an irrational fear of anything new. Much more common is the dopamine-seeking adventurer who jumps from one novel experience to another. Is novelty a survival mechanism? A built-in setting to ensure the continuance of our genetic code? The answer probably involves a blend of genetics, environment, and culture. 

Where am I on the exploration-exploitation spectrum? Not everyone is wired for novelty in exactly the same way nor are they attracted by the same things. Society needs a mix of different types of people. A population’s survival chances increase when you have risk-seeking explorers and risk-avoidant exploiters. Diversity distributes risk. The key is to understand one’s own individual peculiarities and design a lifestyle that unlocks the potential for most self-expression, whilst minimizing the harm done to oneself or done to others. Novelty-seeking when not controlled can easily lead to abuse. People with this personality trait are already found to be more likely to abuse drugs. After all, it’s not always the poison that kills us, it’s actually the dosage. Control the dose, introduce balance, and you’re far less likely to go astray. 

For most neophiliacs—people obsessed with novelty—the best strategy is to have many diverse, disparate experiences in the early stages of life, and then, hone in on a select few interests more deeply. Intellectually, this strategy creates a whole category of masters called “generalist specialists.” These m-shaped experts have the best of both worlds – a strong foundation of multidisciplinary knowledge coupled with expertise in a select few domains. This strategy also leads to maximum self-expression. Be it with relationships or leisure, people tend to follow pre-existent models. As much as we want to believe that our social media profiles portray our individuality, the reality is that this portrayal is highly influenced by current societal attitudes, trends, and values. We need to know ourselves better. We need to express ourselves more authentically. If you were to design your life, what would it look like? Are external expectations or internal self-delusion silencing your inner voice? How would your life change if you lived more authentically? 

Another insightful question: what parts of the standard tourist experience would you rather discard? When I first began traveling, I would meticulously plan each trip. I would fit as many top tourists attractions in my itinerary as possible. Each day was a race against time. A frantic pace driven by the I-have-to-see-everything itch. A decade later, my travels are minimally planned. Each day is a balance of friends, food, attractions, culture, education, and spontaneous wandering. Travel is a journey, why are we so obssessed with the destination? I prefer authentic home-cooked meals over a luxurious fine-dining extravaganza. I’m much more interested in learning about the culture and watching how people live than taking photos with ancient relics. I love conversations, and I am deeply curious to know how other people see the world. What do they talk about? What do they not talk about? What are the socioeconomic and intergenerational issues? How has the culture’s history influenced its present? How do they view other countries? How much diversity exists within the same country? What will the country look like a decade later? I love bonding over food and drinks. But that’s just me. By having a variety of experiences, we can begin discovering our inclinations and passions. 

My curiosity and penchant for novelty increase with age. Once you’ve tasted the forbidden fruit, crossed the metaphorical Rubicon, and contracted the nasty disease known as “traveler’s bug,” there is no more checkpoint to return to. The only way is forward. The map of reality, of our worldview, can only expand outward. Novelty is the necessary catalyst for transformation and evolution. John Tierney, a New York Times journalist, echoed this sentiment, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age.” People grow as they encounter new experiences, people, and ideas; but Tierney cautions that pure novelty-seeking can lead to antisocial behavior, “[however] if you combine this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence and self-transcendence—a sense that it’s not all about you—then you get the kind of curiosity that benefits society as a whole.”