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The Bumpy Elevator Ride to the Top

June 20, 2014

 

Allegedly, this year Noah has knocked out Michael as the most popular baby boy name in the US. Perhaps among the names least likely to make a comeback any day soon is Otis. And yet we owe some debt of gratitude to at least one Otis.

 

Although he didn’t invent the elevator, in 1853 Elisha Graves Otis hit upon an equally key innovation: the elevator brake. The technology to make an elevator—a box on a rope on a pulley—had existed for centuries. The technology to make an elevator that didn’t carry with it the distinct risk of sending innocent people careening towards their deaths, however—this was an exciting new development made possible by the ability to stop quickly and gently.

 

This in turn made early skyscrapers more feasible, and less deadly. Otis’s rather unglamorous creation literally shaped the American skyline.

 

It also shaped this article; the popularization of elevators also led to the popularization of elevator-based metaphor.

 

Let’s look at skill acquisition. Canadian writer Scott H. Young suggests that growth in learning generally follows two patterns, in an article entitled, logically enough, “Two Types of Growth.”

 

To visualize the first pattern, fast or logarithmic growth, imagine boarding an elevator at ground level in a 30-story building. You effortlessly shoot up the first 15 floors. Then the elevator begins to slow, until finally around the 20th floor, you’ve ceased to move altogether.

 

Now to continue the climb, you’ve got to tackle the last 10 flights stairs by foot. And much to your chagrin, with each successive floor, the stairs themselves begin to get wider and taller. Making it all the way to the top requires an enormous amount of effort, much more than anticipated.

 

Sound familiar? Young would suggest maybe you’re dealing with one of the following:

  • Athletic performance

  • Weight gain or loss

  • Learning a new language

  • Productivity

  • Mastery of a complex skill

 

 

The second pattern, slow or exponential growth, is the reverse. Instead of encountering the elevator at ground level, you start out on a series of steps of varied depth and height. It’s only after an exhausting climb that, huffing and puffing, you eventually reach the 20th floor. There, you find a shiny new elevator waiting to take you the rest of the way. And as the elevator climbs towards the top, it gets faster and faster.

 

Young includes the following domains in this pattern:

  • Technological improvement (e.g. Moore’s Law)

  • Business growth

  • Wealth

  • Rewards to talent or career

When we take on a goal, many of us mistakenly believe growth will follow a steady, predictable rise. This is especially true in business forecasting. Our brains tilt towards this belief so often it’s been given a name: optimism bias, or planning fallacy. An often-cited case is the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. The planners predicted it would be completed in 1963, at a cost of $7 million. In fact, it was finished a decade late—at a cost of $102 million. This constitutes a 1400% cost overrun.

 

Misidentifying the rate of growth in a given project can be hugely problematic. Perhaps it won’t be as disastrous as the Sydney Opera House, but when you encounter that logarithmic climb, you might chose to give up before you even begin. Conversely, an exponential pattern can give you the illusion of an easy elevator ride straight to the top—until you discover there’s a bunch of grueling steps still left ahead of you. It’s at this point you take that elevator back down to the lobby and get out.

 

When it comes to the learning curve, try to understand ahead of time if you’re facing a logarithmic or exponential growth pattern. If you’re prepared for the journey ahead, you can dramatically increase your chance of success.

 

Otis gave us the elevator brake, which makes it safe to zip up to the tippity top of tall buildings that scrape the sky. Interestingly, for many of us, it’s a misread on our own learning curve that causes us to slam the brakes, leaving us stuck at ground level—or worse, dangling somewhere between floors.

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