The Learning Curve

We’ve all probably heard of the learning curve, perhaps we’ve even said something like “it had a steep learning curve but I got there in the end” when learning a new skill.

A typical example we can likely share is when starting a new job. It takes a while to learn how to do the job before we know what we are doing, i.e. the learning phase plateau’s out and we stop learning so much. The example can be seen in the diagram above (black line).

Some examples from my career. When I was 18 I was flipping burgers at Mcdonald’s, it took about 1 hour to be taught that. I left Mcdonald’s to work at BAE SYSTEM to build military aeroplanes, it took 3 years to learn how to do that job. In both examples I had to learn a new skill, one was quicker and less intense than the other.

But what happens once we’ve learned that new thing?

Simply put – we mostly keep learning – just not as much. For example – while I was learning to flip burgers, I was also learning about the company culture, working in a new team, health & safety, plus a whole bunch of other stuff. This was the steep stage of the learning curve. When I moved on to learning how to work on the drive-thru I only had to learn that part of the job, therefore the amount of growth was a lot less steep.

The key difference between learning is 2 parts, firstly the cadence in which new learning events happen, and secondly, the growth opportunity/size of the learning.

Look at the black line. An example of this person could be someone who picked a career/job and did it for a very long time. They joined a company when they were 18 years old, learned the job early in their journey and stayed there for 47 years before retiring at 65. I’ve not met anyone who has done that for 47 years, but I have known people who have done that for maybe 20 years.

So the red line – this is someone who was maybe hoping to follow the black line but some event happened (exclamation mark). Perhaps their role was made redundant, perhaps a mid-life crisis, illness, etc. At this point, they have maybe been doing the same job for a good amount of time and their growth kinda plateaued out. I’ve seen many examples of this, for example, people I worked with a BAE SYSTEMS, huge redundancies and people leaving their roles after 10 to 20 years now forced into a change.

My career looks more like the blue line. The events are all different including “I didn’t want to flip burgers all my life”, “I wanted to move from building aeroplanes to working in computer science”, “I wanted to teach and inspire people”, “wow this data science stuff looks cool, I’d like to do that”, “I think I’d be good as a people manager”, etc.

Growth is generally seen as a positive thing. And sometimes it’s easy to deprioritise it (black line) and then those unexpected life-changing events can ‘force’ a change. Alternatively, you can take ownership of that growth and it can come in many forms – a short online course, changing roles, asking your manager for a little more responsibility or starting a personal project.

So what’s the point of this section? I guess to get you thinking. Ask yourself, which line are you on right now (Black, Blue, Red)? Can you see any ‘events’ coming up? Do you want to pre-empt those events and start something now? Or just see what happens when you get there? There isn’t a correct answer and each of us is different.