The Diminishing Returns of Learning

by Ben Perreira

We all remember diminishing marginal returns from our introduction to Econ in high school. At first, adding one unit of input generates more output than the previous unit did. Then, at a certain point, additional input units will result in less output.

Learning new things works the same way. I started playing paddle tennis this summer and was immediately hooked. I got to the point where I was playing early in the morning and again after work. My friends and I were bad at first, then we learned the rules, probably made up some of our own and by the fall every time we played we got better, but not incrementally better to the extent we saw during the first month.

In a past life I was a surf instructor. Though it can vary greatly depending on conditions, the greatest improvement new surfers see is in the first 10 hours of being in the ocean. They learn how to put on a wetsuit, wax a board, paddle out, pick waves, stand up and ride a wave. After over 15 years I still learn new things every time I surf, but what I learn (sadly) seldom has a dramatic effect of how I surf going forward.

ImageThis simple graphical representation holds true for most things we learn: computer programs, languages, organizational cultures, cities and activities. We never stop learning, but the value we get from each new hour/session/day/month of learning diminishes after the early spike.

If it doesn’t hold true I no longer have a good excuse for having a short attention span.

For a later date – is breadth of knowledge preferable to depth of knowledge? Does what we learn in the long tail give us the most value?