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Ready to jump the curve on your lifelong learning journey?

I’ve had the experience before in life – as I am sure you have – of becoming absorbed in a new skill or topic, learning a tremendous amount, but then hitting a plateau at some point and never really advancing much further.

For example, I’ve had this happen with studying a foreign language. I could speak Russian quite well at one point, after a couple of years of very concentrated practice, but I never really advanced past the initial level I achieved. Indeed, not only have I not advanced, but my proficiency in Russian has now steadily declined over the course of a decade.

Maybe you have experienced something similar with learning a language, or a musical instrument, or with pursuing the advanced skills and thinking that could propel your career forward.

In any of these scenarios – and countless others – we may be sufficiently motivated to engage in deliberate practice, and by doing so, achieve a significant level of competence. But eventually, the gains in learning that we get from our practice start to flatten out. We practice, we study, we go through the motions, but we don’t really get better. In the case of my experience with Russian, my motivation began to wane and my pursuit of higher levels of competence – and ultimately, mastery – faded along with it.

Recently I discovered recently that Whitney Johnson and Juan Carlos Méndez-García have developed a model that elegantly captures this sort of experience – and the remedy.

Johnson and Mendez-Garcia view learning and development as occurring along an “S-Curve” that starts slowly, accelerates for a period, and then flattens out. As Johnson puts in an recent HBR Blog post:

As we look to develop competence within a new domain of expertise, moving up a personal learning curve, initially progress is slow. But through deliberate practice, we gain traction, entering into a virtuous cycle that propels us into a sweet spot of accelerating competence and confidence. Then, as we approach mastery, the vicious cycle commences: the more habitual what we are doing becomes, the less we enjoy the “feel good” effects of learning: these two cycles constitute the S-curve.

Here’s the S-Curve as it applies to learning:

Reproduced with permission.


While I have encountered similar “S-Curve” explanations of personal learning and growth before, I feel Johnson and Mendez-Garcia have done a particularly good job of capturing and illustrating the concept. More importantly, they suggest an approach to breaking through the barriers that may inhibit our learning. By being conscious of our learning cycles – and regular readers here know how much I emphasize consciousness in learning – we position ourselves to jump to a new curve as results on our current learning curve begin to plateau.


Reproduced with permission

In the case of learning Russian, it is clear in retrospect that I had reached a point where I really needed to jump to a new learning curve if I was going to attain new levels of learning. This may have meant living in Russia for an extended period of time, or finding a job that required me to use Russian daily to earn my living. Whatever the case, I didn’t make the leap.

As it happens, that’s fine with me: I went down other roads and have never looked back (other than in this blog post, of course ;-). Even so, I think there is a great deal to be said for approaching life and learning a bit more strategically, for having a better sense of when it might be time to shake things up, take some risks, and make a leap. As Johnson puts it:

The S-curve mental model makes a compelling case for personal disruption. We may be quite adept at doing the math around our future when things are linear, but neither business nor life is linear, and ultimately what our brain needs, even requires, is the dopamine of the unpredictable.

So, what curve are you navigating right now, and how soon do you think you may need to make a leap?


P.S. – I am grateful to Whitney Johnson and Juan Mendez-Garcia for granting permission to use the images included in this post. You can find Whitney’s HBR Blog Network post where I originally encountered them at http://blogs.hbr.org/johnson/2012/09/throw-your-life-a-curve.html. I also encourage you to check out a fascinating post in which Juan discusses the S-curve model for Facebook and Dropbox user adoption

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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Leave a Comment:

Jeff Cobb says

Walter – Thanks for commenting. I know what you mean re: languages – the path seems clearer, easier to see and track. In more abstract areas like writing – or leadership – it can be a lot harder to judge where you are and manage the curve. I encounter this all the time as I consider how to grow, improve in my business. I’ve found that just being aware of the concept – i.e., that we can reach a point where plateau and even start to decline or slide backwards – keeps me vigilant on the watch for new opportunities for innovation and growth. – Jeff

Walter says

Great article, Jeff! 🙂 You’re so right… the plateaus we come across as we learn languages are so common and disheartening :/. For me there’s a time in my learning process when I think I make no progress at all in writing/speaking skills. Learning to understand a language (reading or listening to) seems to me like an easier nut to crack. With time I’ve found out that the ultimate key to master these output skills is working even more in the input (looking up unknown words, be immersed in the language as much as possible…). I don’t know how would that apply to other skills :D.

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