The Things About Exponentials

Why exponential growth is unintuitive and a way to better focus on it

The Things About Exponentials
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

It’s just plain hard for us to grasp intuitively the power of exponential things.

This is true in Medicine. There was a brief moment where, at least down here in Melbourne, it felt like COVID existed but didn’t really affect anyone, to it suddenly being everywhere. It went from theoretical, to something where everyone knows someone who got COVID.

It’s also true in personal growth. For the first 70 to 80% of whatever skill or business you’re grinding at, it’s likely just going to seem like nothing is going anywhere. In fact, it often makes intuitive sense to quit things, because “this isn’t working” seems like a very logical conclusion to, well, things not working.

But most of the iceberg lies beneath the surface of the ocean. That’s the bit that supports the top bit.

The seed in the ground lays down its roots before it grows upwards. If it didn’t, then there’s nothing for it to grow upwards into as it grows.

Hidden Progress

So perhaps we should think of a lot more of our progress as hidden progress. The progress that seems minuscule to others and even to ourselves. I like James Clears’ conceptualisation of this: that the difference between an ice cube melting or not is simply one degree of warmth, but you can’t forget all the degrees of warmth that had to be there before it, before that tipping point.

The Solution: Shortened Feedback Loops

The answer to making these things seem better is to shorten the feedback loop. If you don’t look like you’re making progress, you need to redefine what progress looks like. If you measure in miles when you’re just taking steps, then everything will look like it’ll take forever to get there. But if you measure in steps and feel satisfied about those, then one day you’ll find yourself accidentally on a bike, a car, a plane - travelling many miles. In that exponential way that we all have so much trouble understanding intuitively.