The S-Curve of Development: Identify when you Plateau and Find a New Curve

Development is a crucial stage for the success of just about anything, and is often mathematically described using a sigmoid curve. The development of a technology is the most common example of something that follows this pattern. A new technology will stumble out of the gate slowly, but eventually reaches a turning point, which accelerates its development, and eventually the pace of development reaches a plateau.

The Learning Curve: a sigmoid function

The Learning Curve: a sigmoid function

Think back to your high school days: were you popular from the beginning? Were you at roughly the same level the whole time? Or were you a late bloomer who caught up in the later stages of your high school career?

If you were popular from the beginning, your development likely was in a state of plateau. This would have been great while everyone else was still developing and catching up to you, but once the rest of the group caught up, it is likely 1 of 2 things occurred:

1) You persisted in this state of plateau as the others pushed past your level and left you behind wondering where all the good times went

2) You got motivated to change and develop further, and you kept pace with the rest of the group, perhaps regaining your lead.

Before he got signed to the NFL, all Kurt Warner was qualified to do was bag groceries. He was in a state of plateau.

Before he got signed to the NFL, all Kurt Warner was qualified to do was bag groceries. He was in a state of plateau, and many people who peak in high school experience this state afterwards.

I’m sure you can complete the rest of the scenarios based on this train of logic, but the point here is that this is why we often here of people “peaking” in closed environments such as high school or university. Many people who were popular in high school remain this way into their university career, but once they plateau their development long enough for others to catch up, they will be in unfamiliar, unpopular territory. This same scenario is often what motivates the less popular into continuously developing and improving themselves in the hopes that one day their hard work will pay off and their growth level will surpass the benchmark of their more popular peers.

One other phenomenon that can also be explained by this sigmoid curve of development is how good friends can drift apart after first year in university – specifically if you spent it in residence. I had a great time in first year, and I had a very social floor with lots of friendly people. I thought that we would remain friends for all of our 4 years at university. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the sigmoid pattern of development at that time and how influential your behaviour and ambition can be on the slope of the curve.

At the beginning of second year, I went to a few parties hosted by people who were on my floor, but we quickly grew apart due to our different interests. What I failed to realize was that, generally speaking, success in university is a lot more than getting good grades. Getting involved around campus, studying together, going to big parties – doing it all, basically –  are the keys to a fruitful career as a university student. Instead of my development accelerating, I was actually stumbling out of the gate because of my arrogance and stubbornness brought on by the small, isolated group of friends that I had. We thought that we were better than everyone else because we weren’t wasting our time partying with the “dumb” people from our floor. We were sorely mistaken, but eventually, I learned my lesson. I started volunteering, started going out with new friends more, and started making a lot more friends as a result of both these changes to my life. My grades actually went up, my sense of belonging at school improved, and I felt happy about my future. My development hit that turning point and started accelerating upwards. I was catching up.

If you find that you’ve grown apart from friends that you had in first year, it’s probably because you were simply at different places in your lives, and this can likely be explained by the fact that your development curves simply didn’t match up properly. Your goals, ambitions, and interests did not overlap or were not parallel; they were divergent. Do not be afraid to move on and seek out others more similar to you, though, as it is highly unlikely that you’ll retain all of your friends from first year simply because everyone develops at a different pace. Perhaps 5 years down the road you’ll reconvene, so there’s no need to burn any bridges.

The end of your university career can be a very scary thing for some people, and I think it’s because your development curve has plateaued near the end of your university career, and many people are unsure of where to go from there. High school and university were essentially guided tours of life, and all you had to do was listen to get the most out of it. Once you are a graduate, the tour is over, and you’re left to explore the city all on your own. The big challenge and paradox of further change and development that we face is branching off from our current sigmoid curve and stumbling out of a new gate.

What we need to keep in mind is that we should learn the recognize when we are plateauing in our development. Many people reach a stage in their mid to late twenties where they simply grow tired of their job, no longer feel young again, and are generally quite apathetic. Why else are there so many articles pertaining to fostering excitement and acceptance for the lifestyle of the twenty-something? What these articles should be teaching is that if you find yourself complacent and jaded, perhaps it is time that you branch off your current curve and stumble into a new one.

A new job, a new city, a new skill, a new partner in a relationship, the list goes on and on. Bear in mind that no one person has a development curve that they can sustain for their entire life – we are simply not built that way. Look at the most financially successful person in the world: Bill Gates. After an incredible amount of financial success early in his career, Mr. Gates likely grew bored of being so wealthy all the time, so he branched out to a new curve: philanthropy. It’s the reason why many billionaires are also such passionate people. Their passion brought them their vast amount of personal wealth, but it also enables them the ability to branch off their curve and start a new one with great faith and enthusiasm for its challenges and successes.

I believe that passion is lacking with a lot of young people today, as we have become so depressed and complacent with how our lives are going to be. We’re going to school, we’re getting taught things, but a lot of people are not getting educated. The passion to learn and develop is something that will pay dividends for your entire life, so learn to recognize and harness your passion and energy when you are stumbling or plateauing. This way, your life will be a lot more exciting and fulfilling, as you will be in a near constant state of accelerated development. Never stop trying to find new curves to stumble into; remember, passion is key above all else.

The Pareto Principle and How it can Apply to Life as a Student (and beyond)

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was taking a leisurely stroll in his garden. He was examining his pea plants, and he noticed a pattern: 20% of the pea pods contained 80% of the peas. He developed a mathematical model for this pattern, and he produced what is now known as the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. This causal relationship is rooted in the fact that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Pareto then applied his model to land ownership in Italy, and he determined that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. A modern day example of this can be found at the root of the wealth distribution of many nations, where 80% of the wealth is controlled by 20% of the people. While the Pareto principle is an economics theory, it can be applied to your life at school and help you improve your performance by optimizing your time use.

The Pareto Principle Distribution

The Pareto Principle Distribution

If you apply the Pareto Principle to one of the keys of academic success, studying, you will find that you get 80% of your studying done in 20% of your time actually spent studying. This might sound shocking at first, but bear with me for a moment. Think to when you’re studying: you spend a lot of time being distracted, re-reading, thinking about other things, daydreaming about your future, or you leave to go grab a coffee. Let’s take a 5 hour study session at the library and break it down:

20% of 5 hours is 1 hour, so in theory, you only need 1 hour of studying to achieve 5 hours of “studying”. The rest of the time will be spent on your phone, waiting in line for coffee, checking Facebook or another website, or simply zoning out in moments of lost focus. Starting to make sense?

Let’s attach this to a different example in the not so near future: you are now in the process of starting your own business. The Pareto Principle predicts that 80% of your business will come from 20% of your customers. This is why as a business owner, it is imperative that you work harder initially to retain your regular client base than worry about complaints from one-time customers, as they will not provide as much business as your core 20% will. How large that 20% will become is up to your skills and abilities in sales and marketing, but the fact remains is that you want to treat your best customers the best, as they will essentially keep you afloat based on how much business they provide for you. This is why many companies employ a VIP system or preferred client program; they understand the value of a regular customer.

While the Pareto Principle itself is hardly cutting edge (I mean, it has been around for over 100 years), the applications to which it can be applied are always changing. In today’s world, there are so many outlets for our energy, and we simply have to learn how to harness this energy to make the best use of the 80/20 ratio.

The first way to do this is to not over-indulge all of your time in one thing; diversify your portfolio, so to speak. So instead of spending your entire day studying, break up your day into a variety of activities, otherwise you’ll simply be damning yourself from the beginning to accomplish less. Divide your day into smaller chunks of time in which to accomplish your goals for that day. Keep your mind fresh by constantly changing things up.

For example, let’s say that you have to study for two midterms, have an essay due, and also have some routine homework to accomplish, and let’s say it’s all due in a week’s time. Instead of stressing about one thing over the other, allocate a balanced amount of time to each until you accomplish the task. Maximize that 20% of your time each day to achieve 80% of your work. Keep things changing to limit distractions and other contributing factors to the wasted 80% of your time. By managing your 80% “waste time” effectively, you can accomplish 80% of multiple things in the same time as you would normally have accomplished 80% of only one thing.

Our brain traditionally gets bored of doing one thing after only half an hour to an hour, so by changing up the activity, you’re essentially resetting the clock on the 20% of your time to accomplish 80% of a new thing. This is also why I’ve always lived by the philosophy that I’m more productive when I’m busier and mildly stressed about how jam-packed my day is. Perhaps you’ve noticed this too: if you have extended periods of down time, despite all that available time to accomplish whatever tasks you have on hand, you in fact accomplish less because of the lack of motivation, the lack of urgency, and natural tendency to procrastinate. If you want maximize the benefits of the Pareto Principle, simply do more things and manage accordingly.

So with the coming exam season, during your day-to-day routine at work, or your next work-out, try to introduce a bit more variety into it to reset the 80/20 clock and invigorate your mind to accomplish more in the set amount of time you have each day. Each task will feel fresh and fun, your motivation to accomplish things will increase since your list is more challenging, and you’ll accomplish more things in a more efficient manner. This article is living proof that the 80/20 principle works. I wrote it in about 25 minutes in class when my mind started wandering from the course material.

Fall in Love with the Process, not the Product

An issue that I see at university is that many students are pursuing a career that is not the right fit for them, and by that I mean that they’re misled as far as the character required for that particular career. Ask any first year science student what they want to be, and most will say that they want to be a doctor. Ask them why, and most will say that “they want to help people”, “they want a stable career”, or “they’re passionate about health care”. These are not encompassing reasons to become a physician, and demonstrate how poorly misinformed many students are about their future. You could be passionate about health care and be a nurse, a public health official, etc… The same metric can be applied to those who desire to be lawyers, or investment bankers, or whatever big league career you have in mind. Students are very mislead on what a job actually entails, because as a society, we like to focus on the glamours and the rewards of our desires, but never the often grim, difficult path it takes to achieve them.

Neil-Patrick-Harris-TV-Doctor-neil-patrick-harris-2848645-277-257

I find that young students often fall in love with the idea of becoming a doctor, or lawyer, or whatever, because they enjoy the prospect of a good career with a solid income, a title, and other prospects that this will bring. I was guilty of this, and you probably were too at some point. One of the big problems with the culture at university is that envy persists in an almost universal prevalence. Envy is a characteristic of a meritocratic society; one in which status is based on what you have achieved – your merits. This might seem nice at first, because shouldn’t societal status be determined by how hard you have worked for it? The problem with meritocracy is what happens when you don’t succeed, when you fail. If you have failed, for whatever reason, then society tells you that you don’t deserve anything nice, and that your place is at the bottom. Not only that, but we have rather nasty terms for generalizing failures: a loser, to name one. This sort of placement system can be very rewarding to those who succeed, but even more damaging to those who don’t. This is why so many students are caught up with the dream of a great career: no one wants to be known as a failure or a loser. Unfortunately, using this notion of success/failure has limited the scope in which we choose our paths in life, and our motivations for doing so are often misguided and shallow.

Unfortunately, this is often the primary motivation for a lot of people's career choices

Unfortunately, this is often the primary motivation for a lot of people’s career choices

What many high school students and university students need to understand is that in order for a career to be enjoyable, you have to fall in love with the process achieving your career, not the product of possessing your career, or the “title”. And this is not limited to the process of becoming what you want to be; this includes the day-to-day grind of whatever it is you desire to be. You have to embrace the daily struggles you’ll face and use that anxiety in a positive way to help motivate yourself. I’m going to pick on aspiring physicians and lawyers for the bulk of this article for simplicity’s sake, but this metric can be applied to whichever prototypical “good” career that you can think of. This article is not meant to negative or critical of those who are set on pursuing one of these careers and are well-informed as such; it’s meant to provide a sense of realism to the ones whose heart may not be in the right place and who perhaps don’t understand themselves enough to make the right decision.

I was given great advice by a friend of mine who, at the time, was in med school. He said: “A lot of people have this mindset that while I might be miserable in undergrad, once I get into med school, that will all change! And they’re wrong. It gets a lot harder, and you have to dedicate a lot more time to your profession. If you’re miserable getting into med school, you’ll be miserable in med school.”

This perfectly illustrates my point about process versus product. Getting into med school is not some magic pill you swallow to make your life immediately better. It’s a small piece of the puzzle in terms of life satisfaction; you need balance, and your personality has to match well with the type it takes to have an enjoyable career as a physician. There are lots of difficult aspects of the job that can wear on you, the long hours might not be for everyone, and people are less grateful for health care than you think. The novelty of getting called “Dr. so and so” wears off quickly, so if you truly want to a be physician, you have to dig a little deeper than superficial things such as the title or the big pay check. Don’t base your idea of success and happiness off of what is around you. Envy is ever-present in our society, and the more similar you are to somebody, the more likely you are to envy them. Envy can be a good thing; use the thing that you’re envious of another person possessing and use it to try to improve that gap in your own life.

Sometimes you have to deliver some devastating news to people. If you're not prepared to deal with that, maybe rethink your career path

Sometimes you have to deliver some devastating news to people. If you’re not prepared to deal with that, maybe rethink your career path

Much like medicine, law is a very prominent career choice that is often poorly misunderstood and over-glamourized in popular media. Law school involves a great deal of reading and writing, and most of the material is not the most exciting literature on the planet. Legal work itself is also very time-consuming and repetitive, and it’s a very difficult thing for some people to get used to. Like medicine, law is not a glamorous career. When you get admitted to the bar and start work as an associate, you’re likely going to be doing a lot of document review and preparation. More long hours await, and many people are simply not capable of putting in those long hours of work. This is the process of being a lawyer, at least initially, so you really have to ask yourself if this is right for you. Don’t be misled by movies or tv shows; law is a grind, and it’s not for everyone. The job market for lawyers is also not the greatest at the moment. There are currently thousands of unemployed J.D.s in the United States, and Canada isn’t much better. Be aware of these things before you decide to pursue a career in law.

What you'll probably do as a young lawyer fresh out of school.

What you’ll probably do a lot of as a young lawyer fresh out of school.

Guys, if you think that dropping the whole “Sup girl, I’m a doctor/lawyer/iBanker” line at the bar is going to get you that hot girlfriend that you always envisioned would be your reward for your years of hard work at school, think again. You’re likely going to be restricted to someone who has just as little free time as you do. Why do you think so many dual doctor or lawyer couples exist? Yes, they share common interests and passions, but a lot of it has to do with convenience and proximity. Quit believing what movies have told you: girls will not magically fawn over you if you have a prototypical “good” career. You’re just falling in love with the idea of the title, and hoping she will, too. If you barely have enough time for yourself, how could you possibly have time for someone else? Don’t pursue a career path of this nature if one of your motivations for doing so is picking up hot girls with your bank statement and job title. It’s a foolish notion, and it’s incredibly shallow and asinine. That being said, if you do make it to one of these careers, chances are you’ll meet someone equally as intelligent and hard-working as you are, so there’s something to look forward to at least.

Making all that money won't make you happy, especially when you barely have time to spend it when you're fresh out of school

Making all that money won’t make you happy, especially when you barely have time to spend it when you’re fresh out of med school

Before you start calling me a cynic, or think that I’m too bitter, know this: I have many friends in both med school and law school, they’re enjoying things immensely, and they’re happy with their decision. Yes, some of my law school friends aren’t the most confident about their future job prospects. Yes, some of my med school friends are not looking forward to those long nights in the ER. That being said, all of these people chose the career they did because they fell in love with the process and not the product. They don’t go around bragging about what they’re in school for, because this type of education is a humbling experience. They led a balanced life in undergrad, and they all have sound mental health records. They enjoy what they do most days, and they also know that pursuing a demanding career such as medicine or law requires a balanced lifestyle that one cannot sustain if they are too caught up with only the academic portion of their life.

That being said, not everyone who becomes a physician or lawyer will be happy with their career, but these are likely the people who didn’t fall in love with the process, and were perhaps a little dishonest with themselves. Balance is key to maintaining this level of happiness, as your career alone simply cannot provide you with all the happiness that a healthy life requires. There are a lot of students who are pressured into pursuing careers like this because of family pressure, whether it’s because of your parents, your siblings’ accomplishments, or extended family. Because of your close relation and similarity to those in your family, envy is at its strongest here, and it is no wonder that siblings are often secretly (or overtly) resentful of one another if one is “successful” and the other is not. The common theme with a lot of these scenarios is that they completely ignore the dreams and desires of the individual in question. The people providing the pressure just see the good career, the title, and the money. This is not a healthy way to choose a career, because you run the risk of pressuring someone into a career that they’ll be miserable at. The people in this environment have failed to recognize the importance of falling in love with the process.

Another reason why people fail to fall in love with the process is because they create lofty expectations of themselves and become too focused on the ends but not the means. As mentioned in a previous article, high school grades are being inflated at a rate never seen before, and this is creating an illusion for more and more students that they have the academic potential to achieve a great career. Once in university, reality sets in, and only the top students make it into whichever professional school they were gunning for (and some of the top students don’t even get in!), leaving a large group of disappointed, envious people.

Relax. All is not lost, but perhaps this is a great time in your life to examine why you decided to pursue a certain career path. Did you want to become a physician because you wanted to help people? Was it just about the title, money, and job security? Was it just because you were good at science? Was it because your parents, sister, brother, and half of your extended family are also doctors? There are many careers where you can help people, many more where you can make a lot of money, and plenty that require you to be good at science. Maybe you enjoyed the thought of being a respected member of the community? There are plenty of careers or even volunteer positions that give you that same sense of worth and value to your community. Why do you want to be a lawyer? Do you enjoy debating? Relish the opportunity to wear a nice suit every day? Want to help the victims of the world achieve justice? Just like the previous example, there are many answers to this question. What more students need to work on is to start asking the right questions about their chosen path, and then fall in love with the process of answering it.

Many psychologists and executive coaches are now identifying the importance of knowing yourself in terms of your interests, strengths and weaknesses with regards to career choice and life fulfillment. Take a second to write down your interests – they could be academic, extracurricular, whatever. Try to find common traits between them, and use these traits to determine what will best for you. For example, I have worked at summer camp, I enjoy doing outreach and education events, I’m very analytical and love reading, I love debating and public speaking, I love working with people, and I love creative things like writing and marketing. A career that is best for me should involve working with people, problem solving, have me being in a leadership role, and allow for some creativity and flexibility. Think critically about what traits achieving your dream career truly entails, and see if it meshes well with what you are like as a person. This way, you’ll determine if the process is going to be worth attaining the product.

As philosopher Alain de Botton once said: “We should not give up on our ideas of success, but make sure that they are our own; that we are truly authors of our own ambitions. It’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse having an idea of what you want, and finding out at the end of the journey and that it isn’t in fact what you wanted all along.”