Nonlinearity

by Ben Perreira

There’s a temptation among those looking to predict the future to assume things will continue at a constant rate.

Digiday committed this error a couple weeks ago with this chart:Image

 

(They also made the error of publishing a chart whose y-axis values don’t start at zero, but I digress.)

In contrast, take a look at actual 2007 to 2012 Facebook penetration in multiple regions (not exactly the same but a reasonable proxy):

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You could draw a straight line from 2011 to 2017 on the top chart, while a line connecting the tops of each bar on the bottom chart would definitely be something other than straight. This is due to changing rates of acceptance for a multitude of reasons – social (e.g. word-of-mouth), technological (e.g. smartphones), economic (e.g. job search) and political (e.g. movements in the Middle East). These things change neither at constant rates nor always concurrently.

Not only do macro trends work in this way, but we learn things in this way. Children take close to zero steps per day for the first year of their lives then take dozens or hundreds each day going forward.

I regularly play a variation of tennis called paddle tennis (not ping pong). I identified a weakness in my game a few months ago – my backhand. I was using a slice almost exclusively and it made my game predictable to my opponents. One day a friend and I decided that for an entire match we weren’t allowed to use backhand slices, forcing ourselves to practice straight/ topspin backhands. We had tried this shot before but never with any consistency.

By the end of the match we started to make a few shots. A few weeks and a few YouTube lessons later, we were making the shot as consistently as any other.

The way a child learns to walk and the way my friend and I learned to hit a proper backhand are pretty similar. Both could be roughly (and crudely) charted like this:

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This is why failure shouldn’t bother us. It isn’t just a stagnant point along a straight line. It is actually getting us closer to the an accelerated stage of growth.

 

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