Politicians in the US have begun the annual budget debate, and by extension chatter on the staggering national deficit. All of this of course is measured in economic terms — how many dollars the economy generates, are we spending more than we’re generating, how much we need to borrow to pay the bills, etc. Even though the US deficit is mind-bogglingly alarming, it’s not the biggest crisis we face. There’s another more fundamental deficit that holds every country, and every individual back — how much we learn every day while we’re alive.
In a TEDx talk about this time last year, I raised the idea of a curve that describes how much people are growing. Instead of GDP, it plotted daily individual growth. As a shorthand I defined growth as the percentage of waking hours where we’re learning, or more specifically, trying something new. The claim I made at the time, and still stand by, is that this curve is the best underlying predictor of almost everything we care about.
If you show me a buzzword someone wants to increase (income, skills, profit, relationships, domain expertise, scale, leveling up, innovation, national competitiveness…), this curve would be the best predictor of achieving it.
How would we build such a curve, and what would it look like? In lieu of actual data on the 300MM people in this country, I estimated the curve based on a few assumptions. On the X-axis is age. The Y-axis is percentage of waking hours we’re trying something new. My back of the napkin would look something like this:
In the earliest days and years, learning is off the charts. Everything is new, everything is interesting, we’re trying new things almost every second, as my son’s wiggling limbs can attest. As we enter formal schooling, it drops. This is in part due to the fact that we’ve thankfully learned some stuff (tie shoe? check), in part due to efficiencies of play and the inefficiencies of school, and in part due to introducing the notion of negligible-learning time (e.g. watching TV). The school years are still quite high as predominantly we learn to negotiate our social environment.
Notice the exit from the college years, based on my experience with advising tons of people during this transition, there’s a huge drop. At first, the new job brings trying a lot of new things, but it’s quickly replaced by autopilot. This is in part due to individuals’ acclimation (close the monthly accounting books? check), the low pace of new responsibilities or challenges, the inefficiencies of learning at most places of work, and overwhelmingly, staying in the same type of job and doing it the same way for years and years. There are a few upticks along the way for negotiating new social environments, parenting, new leisure activities (I wonder if I can paint that? I wonder if I can hack that together?). But given the amount of time we spend at work (8 to 12 hours/day), our work life is a huge influencer.
This curve isn’t an estimate for everyone. In fact I’d argue for all of the outliers, for everyone you know that’s crushing it, their curve looks different. But I suspect this curve may be the mode.
Why does it matter?
The area underneath the curve is responsible globally for generating what’s new and making sense of it. It’s where we find new ideas, novel approaches to problems, new words and new ways to participate in relationships. It’s where every scientific experiment is located. It’s even behind all of comedy. It’s where we’ll find all the human tinkering that’s going on globally.
When we’re not trying new things, we tend to keep not trying new things. Said differently, if we’re not growing, we’re stagnating.
My experience is that when people are experimenting on a daily and weekly basis, they’re more flexible and adaptive, they have more ways to respond to good and bad situations, they participate more and they’re more in the mix, so they tend to stumble across more opportunities, all of which leads to more opportunity for growth (GDP included).
I want to see this curve pushed up! If the area underneath the curve represents all individual growth globally right now, can you imagine what could be unleashed if it moved up, even a little bit?
Even without country-level data, each of us can estimate our own daily growth curve. How many hours are you awake every day on average? How many of those are spent on things that are so well known they’re on autopilot? How many are spent on trying something new, or trying the same thing in a different way?
Maybe percentage of time isn’t the way to go. It’s a handy constraint for estimating big blocks of time, like pitching a client in a slightly different way, but it’s not so great at picking up smaller moments, like looking the cashier in the eye the next time you buy something.
Maybe things are much better than this chart depicts. Maybe they’re much worse. Either way, I want to help push the curve up and here’s an estimate to work with.