The real learning curve

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How does the process of doing something new work?

Whether it’s learning a new language, picking up a new skill or starting a new business, we all go through a series of stages.

The typical learning curve is shown as learning plotted against time in a so called “S” curve. This shows that learning is low at the start, speeds up and then levels out later on.

The more natural way to think about learning, however, is that it is hard at the beginning, gets easy as you become more familiar with what needs to be done but then it needs a lot more effort to achieve mastery.

The first stage, getting started is often the hardest bit – when you are approaching something new for the first time. Everything is unfamiliar and different.

Take, for example, learning how to model a business case in Excel. At first, if you’re not that familiar with Excel, it takes time to understand the way in which the cells and formulas work.

After some time, you can get pretty competent at building models. This is the second stage.

Perhaps you can even create some very complex models that have lots of variables and connections to other sheets and perhaps use some VBA for automation and programming.

But then it gets hard once again to master the tool in the third stage.

Excel is a very accessible tool, but it is also a powerful programming language. You need to understand a lot more about the process of building a model to move to a stage where your model can be used to generate useful information in the form of scenarios, projections and sensitivities.

Most people don’t ever get beyond a model that gives you one answer. A model that helps you frame and investigate situations is a lot more complicated to think though and build.

Take another example – writing.

Almost everyone can learn to write. It’s hard at the start but most people probably don’t remember the effort they had to put into learning the shapes of letters and spelling out words when they were younger. It’s pretty natural now.

But then why is most business writing hard to read? Is it because you need jargon or complicated words to explain things, or is it because the writer hasn’t yet reached the point where they can express a big idea in small words?

Hemmingway talked about the idea of “one true sentence”. This was a sentence without decoration, without fancy words – just a simple sentence that said something meaningful.

But most business writers haven’t put in the effort that Hemmingway did.

It makes it easier to put in effort over time to learn a new skill once you know how the learning curve works and can see how it relates to how much you are learning.

At the same time, because it takes effort to learn something new, it makes sense to choose what you want to learn carefully.

In knowledge work – reading, writing and arithmetic are still the most useful skills to have.

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