The Hypergrowth Part of the Learning Curve



January 7, 2023


Most of us have read books and articles about the proverbial learning curve and how difficult it is to attain expertise in a given field. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposed that it takes roughly 10,000 hours or about ten years of deliberate practice to become an expert in a field. The below chart illustrates this:

When we examine this chart, we see that mastery of a subject is a slow and difficult task, meant for those of us who wish to commit a substantial fraction of our lives to some topic, area, or practice.

Using my own background as an example, it definitely took over 10,000 hours to earn my Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago.

Let’s add up the numbers (pun very much intended):

I studied mathematics for twelve years in secondary school, four years in college, and four years in graduate school. I researched the mathematics of harmonic analysis, and for my Ph.D. I had to make a “significant contribution” to this field. Likely my total mathematics education was closer to 20,000 hours.

After working as a researcher in mathematics, and helping to develop new models for electron beam systems, I spent a decade learning about technology management. Then I spent decades learning about creating and building ventures. This likely added up to yet another 20,000 hours.

When I worked at RCA Labs, and GE acquired RCA,  RCA Labs was subsequently donated by GE to SRI. We no longer had RCA providing the financial support for the Labs. The vice presidents of the company, including myself, needed to support our Labs with contracts - something we had never done before.

Vice President Curt Carlson, a close friend and peer of mine at RCA Labs asked me, “What can we do, Norman? We know nothing about contract research.”

My response to Curt was something that we both felt was enormously powerful:

“We can learn, Curt. We are smart people, and we can learn.”

And learn we did. Years later, Sarnoff Labs was considered a technology jewel of the United States, and had led the Grand Alliance for HDTV, built the venture model for creating ventures, and launched multiple successful ventures, including Nuance, Intuitive Surgical, Siri, and others.

What we often forget is the initial hypergrowth part of the learning curve. There, you will experience a remarkable stage of learning. But this part of the curve does not represent going from good to great. It indicates one going from no knowledge to some knowledge.

In that statement, there is power. In the human brain, there is a remarkable rapid ability to learn new things to the point of being “ok”. And that’s incredibly valuable.

My experience is that going from zero capability to being “ok” takes about 100 hours. That’s 1% of the time it takes to go from ok to expert! And it occurs exponentially in the normal human brain! And it’s exhilarating!

As we mature and we become more proficient in some subjects, we tend to focus more and more on them. We recognize what we are an expert at and what we’re not. We think of the time and energy it takes to become expert in other areas, and we choose to work with other people who have committed themselves to those areas.

Once we have left the world of school, we tend to focus on our strengths, which is good, but we ignore our weaknesses.

We ignore a major strength of our brain: our ability to learn new things quickly in order to attain basic competence. And that strength is of great importance, particularly to entrepreneurs who are creating breakthrough ventures.

As an entrepreneur, you have to learn new fields that were likely never taught to you before. These are subjects that I often mention in my posts:

  • Venture capital: Who invests and why
  • Rounds of investment
  • Financials: spreadsheets, metrics, …
  • Venture decks, value propositions, and more
  • Go to Market strategies
  • How to pick and manage teams
  • How to pick the board of directors
  • And many more.

It all comes back to one important point:

You can learn!

Yes, you will need to hire experts in the fields that are deeply important. But you do not need to leave the knowledge entirely to them.

Truthfully, you must learn - at least enough to understand the basics of leading your venture.

Beyond learning within the specific area of being an entrepreneur and founder, the hypergrowth part of the learning curve can change your life.

As we mature, we tend to focus on the things we do well and give up on the things we don’t. Over time, a natural process begins where we become more and more capable of fewer and fewer things.

If we allow this to happen, our world shrinks.

Every year, I promise myself to find something about which I am completely ignorant and then to learn enough during the year to become “ok”. This has been an incredible experience for me. I highly recommend that you do the same.

Over the years, my family, friends, and I have chosen many examples of the hypergrowth part of the learning curve:

  • Last year, I decided to learn piano. My goal was to pick three songs that I truly loved, and be able to play them. That was it, three songs. I succeeded, and truthfully I play a bit more piano now. But still, without that goal, I would never have started this new hobby.

  • Several years ago, I realized I have a terrible sense of direction. I decided to rent a boat and learn navigation. Eventually, I learned enough to go ahead and buy a boat!

  • Recently, I bought a ranch. My goal was to learn about how to care for the ranch. Just keep it functioning, and take care of the animals and property. The learning curve has been a fantastic experience, not only from the learning itself, but also understanding a host of issues of having a ranch in rural California.

  • I mentioned the hypergrowth part of the learning curve to a great friend, who, like me focused much of his mental energy on mathematics and computer science. He decided to choose a simple task. He chose to learn about single-malt scotch! His goal was to find two or three scotches that he really liked.

The point is that the ability for the human brain to learn is enormously powerful. The hypergrowth stage of learning gives you great pleasure, takes a short amount of time, and opens up your world.

Every great entrepreneur must take advantage of this inherent advantage  if they are to succeed.

Your Venture Coach,

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Ayden Syal, CEO of MOGL
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