I love to learn. But when it’s actually time to learn, it’s not always as fun as I’d hoped. I can feel clumsy. I worry about appearing inept. I may fight fatigue and hunger. I might be grumpy or struggle to complete my other work.
So sometimes I hate it — this thing I love.
Disrupting the status quo, which new learning requires, involves a jump, often backward, in anticipation of new growth opportunities. The model for this shift is similar to the path new technologies follow as they penetrate the marketplace. The starting mark is at the low end of an S-curve where progress is slow until there’s a tipping point, basic competence in a new job, for example, or a certain level of market penetration. Then comes hypergrowth, rapid advancement up the steep, sleek back of the curve. At the top of the curve, growth slows again, potential is exhausted necessitating a leap to a new curve to embrace opportunity anew.
Golfer Dan McLaughlin is a great illustration of surfing the S-curve. Having never played 18 holes of golf, McLaughlin quit his job as a commercial photographer to become a top professional golfer. Initial improvement was slow but accelerated as the various pieces of his game came together, consistent with hypergrowth. Some 28 months into the project, he had surpassed 91 percent of the 26 million golfers who register a handicap with the U.S. Golf Association database. His rate of improvement slowed as he faced competition from the top 10 percent of amateur golfers.
A lot happens in our brains at the low-end of our learning curve. Though remarkable, the human brain depends on finite resources to perform. Energy devoted to new learning is diverted from other purposes, resulting in some overall performance decline. More of the stress hormone cortisol is produced; we feel tired, hungrier, irritable. Anticipating the natural physiological effects we will encounter at the low end of the curve can help us persevere through those difficult, discouraging early days.
As we put in hours and hours of practice, hypergrowth begins, learning accelerates and increasing competence breeds confidence. Feel good neurotransmitters like dopamine are released; what was initially challenging and even painful becomes a delight. Then, as we approach mastery, our growth decelerates; we achieve competence, even excellence, but we no longer enjoy the same rush of pleasurable brain chemicals. Stagnation, boredom and complacency may result, and performance may decline. If we don’t jump to a new learning curve, the plateau may become a precipice.
Sometimes our dislike is genuinely justified — we’re on the wrong learning curve. While we tend to want to do things we love or feel passionate about, our best chance of success comes when we do things that play to our natural strengths, which is not always the same thing. Consider best-selling author Augusten Burroughs. He wanted to be an actor as a child, and was confident he would be “one of the greatest actors of the day, possibly the greatest.”
Then he saw himself on videotape. “It was a stunning revelation. My knowledge that I was giving an incredible performance in no way aligned with what I saw. I sucked worse than anything has ever sucked in the history of suckage.” Eventually he made his way toward writing, which he does well. He explains, “When I chose writing over acting, I didn’t give up on a dream, I gave up on my choice of vehicle used to deliver the dream.”
It is important to evaluate whether we are encountering expected difficulties, or if we are feeling thwarted most of the time. Perpetual frustration can be an indicator that we are pursuing the wrong goal, and it can have adverse effects on physical and mental well-being. If you or a subordinate seem to be at risk, reevaluate the suitability of the curve.
Sometimes hard is just hard. The Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand has studied competitive surfers and determined that typically 8 percent of their time is spent riding waves, 54 percent paddling and 28 percent waiting. No one would suggest the paddling, waiting and inevitable wipe-outs aren’t integral to the ultimate success. Anticipating the thrill ride to come can help us love the hard part of learning, even when we hate it.
Whitney Johnson is CEO and Founder of WLJ Advisors LLC and author of “Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.” Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
She will be speaking at CLO Symposium+PLUS in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 1:30. If you miss him live, you can catch his keynote in the CLO Symposium+PLUS Video Library for the event, releasing Oct. 24.