The power of incremental growth

Plus – a free copy of my book – Lifelong Learning

If you folded a piece of paper in half 100 times, how tall would it be?                      [The surprising answer is at the bottom of this post.]

When Albert Einstein was asked what he thought was the human race’s greatest invention, he allegedly replied, “Compound interest.” It was a humorous response and we’re not sure what he meant by it, but it does contain a kernel of truth.

There is a big difference between simple and compound interest. Simple interest lets you earn money on your principal. Compound interest lets you earn money on your principal and your interest. For instance, at a simple interest rate of 10%, it takes 10 years to double your money. A compound interest rate of 10% will double your money in just 7.2 years.

The same advantage that compound interest has on money also applies to the power of compounding in learning. The cumulative effect of learning is astonishing.

John Kotter, in his book Leading Change, puts it this way:

“Between age thirty and fifty, Fran ‘grows’ at the rate of six percent—that is, every year she expands her career-relevant skills and knowledge by six percent. Her twin sister, Janice, has exactly the same intelligence, skills, and information at age thirty, but during the next twenty years she grows at only two percent per year. Perhaps Janice becomes smug and complacent after early successes. Or maybe Fran has some experience that sets a fire underneath her. The question here is, how much difference will this relatively small learning differential make by age fifty?

“Given the facts about Fran and Janice, it’s clear that the former will be able to do more at age fifty than the later. But most of us underestimate how much more capable Fran will become. The confusion surrounds the effect of compounding. 

“For Fran and Janice, the difference between a six percent and a two percent growth rate over twenty years is huge. If they each have 100 units of career-related capability at age 30, 20 years later, Janice will have 122 units, while Fran will have 321. Peers at age 30, the two will be in totally different leagues at age 50.” (page 181)

I think the most important life-skill to develop is lifelong learning. It’s more important and doable than you think.  This post underscores the marvelous compounding effect of lifelong learning. Engage in it and you’ll soon feel wind filling your sails.

[Here’s a free copy of a book I wrote on Lifelong Learning.]

When is the best time to plant a tree? — Twenty years ago. When is the second best time to plant a tree? — Today. 

When is the best time to commit to lifelong learning? — When you’re a child. When is the second best time to commit to lifelong learning? — Today. 

Here’s a good place to start: read books. If you read one good book a month and internalize what you learn so that it “sticks,” ten years from now you will have learned from 120 books. Your knowledge of the world will expand. You’ll be emotionally, socially and intellectually energized. And, you’ll be more competitive. [If your colleagues at work don’t read any books in the next ten years (and most people don’t read consistently), you will gain a distinct advantage.]

Now, go read a good book. (I recommend a book I read last week – Think Again by Adam Grant.)

Question – If you folded a piece of paper in half 100 times, how tall would it be?

Answer – Its thickness would equal 93 billion light-years. That’s the power of compounding.


6 Replies to “The power of incremental growth”

  1. Great post Don! At the heart of the matter is motivation. If Fran is hungry for promotion or wants to finish her mortgage sooner, she will try to get an advantage and, when it works for her, she will keep on trying new things. However, if Janice is happily married and has a reasonably comfortable lifestyle she may feel she just wants to maintain that situation. Janice could spend time listening to a TED talk or reading a book but it may be more satisfying to have a household chore completed or to speak to a family member on the ‘phone. Unless the gender balance changes in our economies, this will always be a lifestyle choice for women. Often childcare, especially in school holidays, means that women cannot climb the ladder as quickly as men and may begin to wonder if it is even worth trying. One of my dearest friends went to night school to take exams she hadn’t achieved in high school but was then able to help her own children in those same subjects. She definitely kept on learning but not to achieve personal success or recognition.

    1. Angela, once again, you share good insight. I do think that lifelong learning/reading can become an end to itself, not just a means to an end. Not just a way of getting ahead in life, but actually enjoying life. Take care and thanks for writing. Don

  2. Really Excellent, Brother Don! I’m only 75, and have been committed to being a lifelong learner for most of it; especially the last 43 years! Since I was 32, I’ve read through the BIBLE more than 50 times, and the NEW TESTAMENT more than 60 times in my lifetime, so far! That’s not counting the more than a dozen other books per year! I’m sure others have done more, but I’m grateful for what the LORD has enabled me in, and hope to useful ’til the END! My Dad and Mom were my Greatest examples; he ’til age 90, and she ’til almost 102! THE BOOK is my Favorite, of Course! HALLELUJAH! AMEN! SHALOM! AGAPE!

    1. Frank, thanks for responding to my post. Congratulations on being a reader. I try to read broadly on many different topics. Take care. Don

  3. With retirement and children reared and on their own, it seems like the incremental growth in my own life has actually sped up, mostly because of having more “discretionary time” for reading and research. I’m trying to be more focused about retention, too., taking notes and then reviewing. Also, I think (hope) I am more quickly attentive to the Lord’s prodding in varied areas of life, e.g. attend to wise goals rather than wasting time in frivolous pursuits; keep thoughts pure and ask forgiveness immediately; “walk a path of spiritual significance.” The folded paper example — wow. That’s an impressive prod.

    1. Sharon, it sounds like you are living an engaged, invigorating life. I applaud you for that. Press on and never stop. Don

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