Monday, August 13, 2012

Success Vs. Time

I got the following idea during the last hours of 2011. First, it made me realize some of the mistakes I was making in mental energy and time prioritization - and in a sense influenced my new years resolutions (they got changed again due to other influences - but that's a story for a different day). Second, after a few days of additional pondering, it got me shoving my "life-graphs" to anyone willing to listen. The positive feedback I received from my friends and some co-workers is the reason this blog came to be - so it only seems fair for this concept to be the first post (for all my fellow OCDers out there - the introduction doesn't count :) ).

So, what am I talking about?
Society teaches us that the more time/effort we invest in learning/exercising/improving in something - the better we get at it, in a linear manner. In other words, if we assume that after 1 hour of practice on a piano I acquire 1 "skill point" of piano playing, then after the second hour I will have 2 "piano skill" points, and so on, as illustrated in this simple graph:

Skill Vs. Time

This is a very (very...) gross approximation of reality, and we will revisit this subject in the future, but let us believe society - for now.

And now, the most important sentence in this post: 

Skill is not the goal.

Let me elaborate. Suppose you took a course in quantum physics. Being a good student, you read/do homework/go to lectures, striving to get "quantum skill" points, every hour invested (presumably) gives you another skill point. At the end of the semester you have a final examination that measures how good you are in quantum physics - how many skill points you have (again grossly oversimplifying by assuming 1 "quantum skill" = 1 point in your final grade). Lets go over the possible grades and their consequences:

0-55% : Congratulations, you failed :) (the passing grade in the Technion - my university - is 56%). This range of grades gives no practical value: not only do you have to take the course again, you probably don't want a potential employer or maybe even your fellow students to know about it.

56-70% : You passed. Not the highest grade but you can move on and leave this whole quantum nightmare behind you and focus on what really interests you/you're good at.
70-89% : This is the grey area. You got a pretty good grade - but still not exactly the stuff that will land you your dream job or knock people of the chair.
90-100% : This is the real deal. You may be seen as an expert - both by society and (more importantly) by yourself.

What conclusions can we draw from this simplistic analysis?

First, we see an almost paradoxical range of skill points - below 55. These points don't give you anything in return for the time you spent, au contraire, they hurt you. You probably would have been better off if you never even took the course. This form of reasoning is well known to all of us - that's what the butterflies in your stomach scream when you think of attempting something new - you can't fail if you don't try, right? I'm not saying the butterflies are correct, of course, but doing something half-heartily is sometimes worse than not doing it at all.
Second, and this is the more interesting part, the 70-90% range is... weird... You are obviously better in quantum physics if you get 80 instead of 70 on the exam - but the influence of this difference on the course of your life is almost negligible. Improving from 50 to 60 is vital, improving from 85 to 95 is victorious, improving from 70 to 80 - not that exciting...
One could plot this idea like this:

Success Vs. Skill

Before I move on I'll try to convince you that this general idea is applicable to other aspects of life:
  • Dancing (based on my own experience learning Salsa): You only need to be "not bad" to enjoy yourself, use dancing as a sport, learn how to move more gracefully, improve coordination, meet people etc. To get something beyond that from your dancing skills - for example teaching or participating in competitions or shows - you need to be much much better. So, once again, we have a sharp rise of "usefulness"/fun when you start dancing, then a relative plateau until you get to the semi-professional level.
  • Learning a new field of knowledge: Usually, after reading the relevant wikipedia articles, talking to a professional, perhaps trying a couple of tutorials for yourself, you can already understand the language that is used in this field. You know the main concepts, you understand the goals and have learned some of the field's history. On the other hand, you have so much more to learn before being able to actually contribute something original or be considered an expert.
  • Human relations: Stretching a little the definition of "skill", we can think of your standing with a person as a kind of expertise or ability - gained by time and energy invested in that person (once again a gross oversimplification that will be addressed in a future post as well). When you have only just met a person, the transition from stranger to acquaintance to facebook friend is relatively easy (or at least quick - assuming you have the courage...), but then comes the long and gradual process of becoming a close friend or a romantic partner. In the "high skill" part of the graph we have the situation where you two have a good vibe, you know each other pretty well or have had some nice flirting - in this case the transition to (for example) a couple is quick (assuming you don't screw up :) ).

Finally, we can introduce the concept of time efficiency. Basically it just means how much more "success" you will get for spending another hour - after you have already spent X hours (in mathematical terms it is the derivative of the success vs. time function at the X hour point. In microeconomics it's called marginal revenue).
Plotting the efficiency of time vs. time we get:
Efficiency Vs. Time - GeoGebra Dynamic Worksheet

Efficiency Vs. Time

Move the green triangle to choose the amount of time invested.
Yellow curve is the efficiency of spending more time at the current skill level.

This efficiency "pit" in the medium-skill area is the point of our long reasoning process that we have just been through. When you just start learning a new skill - every hour brings with it huge amounts of new knowledge, when you finally reach a high level of expertise - you open new possibilities for yourself, when you are in the transition phase - its just hard work.

Put in simple words: being mediocre is simply not cost-effective

I'm not saying you should avoid the hard and inefficient climb up the skill points at any cost - the rewards for true expertise might be well worth it, but in that case you should choose in advance to go all the way - and strengthen your resolve for the journey ahead.

Until next time, may you choose to climb the right mountains.

Michael Shalyt.


I can think of at least half a dozen corrections and refinements for the ideas I have presented - and that's only from my own biased mind. Never the less I intentionally refrained from making this post more complicated and even longer than it already is - so I apologize if you feel that your reality and your challenges are completely incompatible with my simple modelling - and would be happy to hear about it.)

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  1. Just found the blog and read it, I'm loving it. We have a lot in common.

    I'm commenting on this post because it's an idea that's shaped so much of how I run my life. I love learning things and I've always wanted to stuff my head with as much knowledge and skill as possible. Because of the exact effect described in this post I started categorizing things into those which I would like to pursue to their fullest (computer science, Magic: The gathering) and those which I will simply become "good enough" at (too many to count). It's great to hear this broken down in a logical way. I'm feeling very validated right now. :P

    I love the blog, thanks for your writing.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!
      Hearing stuff like that makes we want to write more :)