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Wise Up

Surf’s up! A new way to see progress in work and life

About the author

David G Allan is Managing Editor for Features at BBC Worldwide in New York.

  • Charting success: It's rarely ever linear

    I am taking you on a surprise trip and you need to pack for it — right now. Hurry home.

    But before you run off you need some answers, don’t you? How long will we be gone? Are we leaving the country? How will we get there? Should you bring sunscreen or snowshoes?

    If you set a goal and just start climbing toward it — whether it’s to get rich, become a college professor or learn to speak Portuguese — you will probably fail unless you have a realistic expectation of the path it takes. The trail is strewn with discouraging roadblocks and fool’s gold, and is never in a straight line. Once you know the route, you may even decide you don’t want to take it.

    The truth is, you really need a map.

    That was my takeaway from a recent column on growth trajectories by David Brooks of The New York Times, inspired by Scott H Young, a blogger who writes for his own site, Get More from Life. Young's initial point was that most people falsely think of progress as linear, a steady journey up a 45-degree incline over time/effort. In other words, the more you put into your objective the more you’ll get out of it.

    But in reality, that’s not how most goals are met.

    Some of the big things we hope to attain in life, such as financial stability and a rewarding career, happen along an exponential growth curve. We have to work at it for a long time — years, even decades — before we see the reward of our labour. Knowing that before you start such a journey is key to staying motivated until the payoff comes.

    Conversely, other progressive goals such as losing weight and learning a new language, run along a logarithmic curve. That means that good habits are rewarded with quick measurable progress in the short term (warning: slipping back happens just as fast), but it becomes harder to sustain progress over time. Knowing that’s the route of these kinds of goals helps you reach the plateau stage and tempers your expectations of continued growth before you do.

    In fact, to break free from the point-of-diminishing-returns, you will need to drop the habits that got you there in the first place. “When Tiger Woods was first competing at golf, he had to stick to his arduous practice routine even though success seemed to come ridiculously easy,” wrote David Brooks. “But then, when he hit a plateau, he had to reinvent his swing to reach that final tippy-top level.”

    For other kinds of experiences, Brooks ruminated, “I could think of some other growth structures.” Inspired by Brooks and Young, I’ve drawn out a number of growth trajectories, noting which kinds of goals and experiences they may map out. Click on the images above to see the 10 common paths to success.

    These illustrations are just thought-starters. A more accurate sense of what growth pattern your goal follows requires more homework. The next step may be to talk to or read about someone who has made a similar journey. To be forewarned is to be forearmed for success.

    Wise Up is a thinking person’s life hacking column in which we examine behaviour modification, self-help, found wisdom and applied philosophy. For more stories, go to BBC Capital and don’t miss another Wise Up column by subscribing here. Wise Up is written by David G Allan (twitter: https://twitter.com/davidgallan), Managing Editor for Features for BBC.com

    (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

  • Improvement is steady. This path is not as common as people think

    Relevant to:

    • Lifelong habits (such as meditation)

    • Skill-based hobbies (such as gardening)

    • Writing

    • Wisdom

    • Chess

    (Graphics written by David G Allan, designed by Julio Rivera, inspired by David Brooks and Scott H Young.)

  • Work more now for later pay-off. This requires resilience, endurance and patience

    Relevant to:

    • Starting a business

    • Most careers, especially academia and craftsmanship

    • Wealth accumulation

    • Baseball, karate (see The Karate Kid)

    • Raising a building

    • The audience for this column

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • As you get better, the harder it becomes to continue improving even with dedication

    Relevant to:

    • Weight loss

    • Learning a new mental skill (such as language, work-specific task)

    • Soccer, running

    • Tiger Woods’ golf career

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • Start from success, only to relearn basics and overcome setbacks until growth resumes

    Relevant to:

    • Starting a new job or career

    • Moving to a new country

    • Developing morals

    • Grief

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • Quick growth followed by steady decline

    Relevant to:

    • Becoming president, with term-limits

    • Professional sports career

    • Memory as we age

    • Fame

    • Empires

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • Growth and stagnation alternate, requiring patience and preparedness for change

    Relevant to:

    • Civil service career

    • Financial stability over phases of life

    • Careers with structured patterns (such as medical school to chief resident, law school to firm partner)

    • The evolution of the idea behind this column (Young > Brooks > Allan > whomever is next)

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • Going over material again and again but building on each successive wave

    Relevant to:

    • Book editor

    • Screenwriter

    • Director

    • Actor/performer

    • Web developer

    • Consulting and other contract work

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • Steep learning incline for long term acquisition

    Relevant to:

    • Learning to walk, read, ride a bike

    • Getting tenure as a professor

    • Buying a house

    • Becoming pope

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • It’s only downhill from here

    Relevant to:

    • Pets.com, Kozmo, eToys.com and other dot-com era busts

    • Innocence

    • Sense of mortality

    • Movie releases

    • Child actors

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)

  • It's the top of the world! What could go wrong?

    Relevant to:

    • Hard core drug use

    • Gambling

    • Cheating and lying

    • Robbing banks

    • Base jumping

    • Securities fraud (see The Wolf of Wall Street)

    (Graphic: Julio Rivera)