For business, as for sports, even the most talented people in the world need years of practice to be the best they can be. It should be a surprise to no one that you can’t go from the street and straight to the top of any sport.

The top athletes have been matched with challenges at or slightly above their level of abilities through several years to get to the very top. Years of hard work and practice have allowed them to add more facets to their repertoire. Similarly to sports, the business world is obsessed with faster progress. Doing more and developing faster in a shorter time. While the methodology from sports is directly transferable to most other areas of building solid skills, many talented people take a less well-planned path for their professional careers – particularly in the early years of their career.

The challenge with a steep learning curve is that hunger for quick development often invites for cutting corners rather than putting in the hard work

Whether or not you have a crystal-clear end goal in mind for your own career, most people have some idea about where they are heading. With ambition and hunger for heading in the right direction comes impatience. The opportunity to get responsibility early on drives more and more talents towards opportunities within fast-growing technology companies. The pros are clear: Fast development, opportunity to take on responsibility, and a steep learning curve.

A steep learning curve is tremendously attractive and offers a perception of almost instantaneous development and progression towards a more desirable place in life: A new skill(-set), a new title, more responsibility, more prestige, more success, a higher salary. The list is endless.

The challenge, however, with the steep learning curve is that hunger for quick development often invites for cutting corners rather than putting in the hard work required to build a strong understanding. This often happens unconsciously and comes at a cost.

Particularly in young and fast-growing organizations, you may do various tasks that, in larger organizations, would be handled by multiple specialists, and not by a single person. The temptation to go wider and not deeper is ever-present. The more topics you cover, the more responsibility you’ll have, right?

Skills become easier and faster to acquire when you understand the underlying patterns, so what may seem to be a faster way to learn a skill may slow down your overall development. Elon Musk is famed for his ability to quickly acquire a working knowledge within very technical fields. When talking about gaining depth in knowledge, he explained that “it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”

Understanding the basics gives a context which allows for recognition and validation of patterns. Even without prior knowledge or experience, you may be able to recognize a pattern if the data is presented to you in the right format; however, judging whether such patterns are valid, or due to other underlying variables, requires a feel for the context.

If I were to ask you what 83 divided by 3 is, you may not be able to give me the exact number straight away (27.7) – but because you have a basic feel of numbers from dealing with them in everyday life, you would surely be able to reject if someone claimed the result to be 40.

Similarly, I often see, for example, statistical calculations being misused or ignored in the fields of marketing or product development because the fundamental level is missing. Many discussions can be avoided if the fundamentals are in place – in this case having a working understanding of statistics. Many people’s perception of a sufficiently deep understanding of statistics isn’t that deep and often ends at averages. If everyone would have a sufficient level, it wouldn’t take long to reject test results due to too little data.

Balancing width and depth

For personal development, you can essentially progress in two directions: Width (learning a new skill) or depth (learn more within an existing skill). Speed comes at the expense of depth. You can decide to invest your time in learning a little about a lot of topics or in learning a few topics in depth. I’ve had the chance to work with many talented individuals early in their careers, and way too often I see that their confidence in their skills leads them to believe that they have mastered a skill much too early.

In the long run, the winning combination is a sufficiently deep knowledge of the right skills. You should, therefore, be structuring your career to achieve this, rather than focusing on getting your hands on as many challenges as possible in a short time.

The million-dollar question persists: Why do people rush when it’s not in their interest?

There are essentially three reasons why people don’t build up a proper foundation, despite it being in their best interest:

  1. The temptation of shortcuts and their appeal to impatience
  2. Blindness towards actual level of competence
  3. The bikeshed effect

1. The temptation of shortcuts and their appeal to impatience

Many people nowadays are constantly on the lookout for shortcuts. The web is filled with “how-to” articles that promise X rules for achieving everything from conversion rate improvements to getting a six pack. There are unquestionably ways that are more efficient than others, but there is no substitute for building up a deep understanding of a field.

The problem is that most areas bring an initial excitement. You’ll approach it with a beginner’s mind. The excitement of something fresh. It will require and get your full attention – you’re learning something new after all!

But once the novelty wears off, the task becomes routine and you’re left with your own persistence if you are to continue your development in depth. The task may appear to become routine. It may appear repetitive. It’s now up to you to acknowledge that the challenge is in fact always very different as circumstances differ.

Former American national gymnastics coach, Christopher Sommer, broke down the path to success in gymnastics into three steps:

  1. Top performance is based on a strong confidence in your skills and your ability to perform
  2. Confidence builds on competence within your field
  3. Competence comes from repetition of the required tasks

The challenge for impatient millennials is that repetition takes time and there is no substitute for this.

2. Blindness towards actual level of competence

“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Greek philosopher Epictetus once wrote. It’s easy to be blinded by initial success and mistake it for mastery of a skill, but it’s important to avoid that.

Being humble about your actual level and avoiding the temptation to “check the box” of a skill is difficult, particularly early on in your career. Achieving confidence from competence takes more than a few repetitions to gain deep understanding.

3. The bikeshed effect

When learning a craft (as opposed to a single skill), it is essential to understand the layers of skills. Some projects may seem easy at first, but doing a proper job may require more than what is clear at first glance. Tim Ferriss, in his book “The 4-Hour Body,” illustrates this with “the bikeshed effect”; the difference between building a nuclear power plant and building a bikeshed. Because of the perceived complexity of building a nuclear power plant, most people would (rightly) assume that they know nothing about this. However, when it comes to a bikeshed, which has a far lower degree of perceived complication, many people will have an opinion on how to (or how not to) build one.

Similarly, understanding the fundamental building blocks is often the difference between a good and an excellent online marketer or product manager. These building blocks are rarely in direct use, but they transcend every decision made. Such fundamental building blocks include a basic understanding of statistics, copywriting, analytics, behavioural psychology, etc.

Having the right fundamentals in place allows for a more in-depth understanding. Suddenly you aren’t rotating your search ads just because you hit 3000 impressions, but because you understand at what point you have enough data to make a decision. Suddenly you aren’t just testing including that you are the largest in your industry in your ads because it fits with the character limit and sounds great, but because you understand that social proof, perception of success, and being the perceived de facto standard are all valuable psychological tools to help the user decide and act.

What’s next?

If you do desire to build your skills for long-term success, there are six things I suggest to keep in mind:

  1. Seek guidance – speak to someone who has done what you are trying to do (or is further down the road) who can help you know whether you are going wide too quickly
  2. Stay patient and work hard – invest the time needed to learn your skills in depth
  3. Compare yourself to the best – you aren’t necessarily good enough just because you are better than the guy at the next desk. Compare yourself with the best to find your true level and adjust accordingly
  4. Be paranoid – for most things I’ve had to learn as an entrepreneur, I have had to learn by doing and by reading blog posts, books, and articles online. I am always afraid that there is something I have missed and therefore still to this day, I’m doing my best to gather as much knowledge as possible within the fields that I work in. My paranoia of having missed a vital point still drives me to read as many books and speak to as many industry experts as possible within the areas that take up my time
  5. Be humble – always be humble about your own level, particularly when you consider yourself an expert. Always keep Epictetus’ quote on learning in mind. Don’t let yourself limit you in what you can learn!
  6. Keep the end-goal in mind –  Are you as good as you want or can be? What do you need to know five or ten years from now? Would that change the way you prioritize your own development today?


Image credits: Take and Talk Pics

5 thoughts on “6 Tips For Planning Your Personal Development: The Challenges of a Steep Learning Curve

  1. Stefan thanks for a great blog. Very well written thoughts and principles which should be useful for any professionel at any level. Old school as I am I still believes in understanding the values and purpose behind the development and training. Why become better? What is it you want to achieve that is bigger than your goals? What is the true purpose behind your ambitions?

  2. Nice Stefan, I enjoyed it. Perhaps an interesting addition that is often overlooked by the ambitious among us:

    7. Understand the value of rest. Most skills (both mentally and physically) cannot be mastered through “binge” studying. In contrast to production, where 12 to 16 hour burst sessions can be effective, mastering a skill requires many short sessions on many separate days. Allowing your brain to drive knowledge from your short-term memory into your long-term memory over night, and create the neural pathways associated with the subject.

  3. Very true ! Being humble is imo the most useful trait one should acquire, as it prevents you to cut those corners that seems so damn boring while learning.

    All the rest will derive from it, for exemple seeking guidance will only be triggered if you don’t feel like an all powerful demigod, same with comparing yourself correctly. You cannot think you missed something either, unless you accept you’ve still got a long way to go.

    I remember the first colleague I had in my career, the very first, was a developper one year older than me, convinced he had some kind of eidetic memory (he would never ever write anything, on paper, jira, notepad whatever) and that he could multitask. Suffice to say it was a disaster, the project was going into the wall, bugs everywhere, clients running away, no record of any kind, no testing etc. Simply breaking his ego, changing that mindset, showing how to do good strong work at a slow sure speed, writing boring documents listing every features we had, changed everything, and turned a complete failure of a project into a success. Just because finally he accepted he could do errors and took a second look.

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