Ah, learning. A multipotentialite’s delight! We love learning for its own sake and because we can always find many ways to apply any new skill or knowledge we take on. Rapid learning is a multipotentialite super power, too. Sometimes we feel like infallible knowledge acquisition machines. Until we don’t.
Take learning to play guitar
At first we rapidly improve—one week we’re completely useless and the next we’re strumming a few songs. After that our improvement continues, but more slowly. Perhaps we’re learning some more difficult chords and a few scales. After a while, we become an okay guitarist.
But “okay” is where many of us hit a ceiling. From this point, to truly master this new skill, we have to put in a ton of effort just to make a minor improvement. Becoming a master guitar player requires endless practice of the tiniest details. Improving starts to require several times more than the total effort we’ve put in so far already.
If we naively expect our rapid early gains to continue, then this is often when we get bored or demoralized, as it sinks in just how much work it is to improve further.
I think we can apply a remixed version of the Pareto Principle here. Maybe you’ve heard of it? As principles go, it’s one of my favorites – partly because it’s fun to say, and party because it’s super useful and shows up all over the place.
It’s also known as the 80/20 rule: for many events, about 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
For example, large corporations have noticed that 80% of their complaints come from 20% of their customers, so solving their specific problems reduces overall complaints by a tremendous amount. In software, 80% of bug reports comes from 20% of bugs – fix those, and you’ll stop drowning in quite so many reports.
The principle isn’t just about negative effects, either. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 -Hour Work Week, claims that 80% of your productive work is achieved in just 20% of your time. He uses this insight to argue that you can focus on the super-useful 20% of tasks that bring you 80% of your output.
Here’s my 80/20 for mutipotentialites: Mastering a skill up to 80% ability takes about 20% of the effort.
Our biggest gains in proficiency come when we begin something new. I’ve drawn a Not-Very-Scientific-At-All Graph to illustrate the point:
That initial 20% of effort can take us a long way. Think back to our guitar-playing example. It takes discipline to climb the far end of the graph!
When we hit the ceiling of being “okay” at something, we have a choice to make: Is this good enough? Or do I want to put in all that effort again and again for ever-smaller improvements?
There’s no right answer, of course. It depends on what you want to achieve.
Multipotentialites often value breadth over mastery in many areas of their lives, so this principle can help to plan in advance: When I hit that point of being ‘good enough’, I’ll move on to something new.
Knowledge of the 80/20 principle of learning means you can make a conscious choice, either to stay disciplined and keep improving, or to move on and throw yourself into the next exciting thing.
Whatever you choose, don’t feel guilty
We’ve talked before about not feeling guilty about failure to finish. There’s absolutely no rule anywhere that states you have to master whatever you start. And of course we can master some skills and remain merely ‘okay’ in others.
It’s totally acceptable to learn a bit of this and a bit of that
And chances are that you can apply what you’ve already learned to whatever you take on next.
It’s all about what we want to spend our effort on. By knowing how learning works, you can recognize the point where effort will no longer bring you much improvement. Then you can decide what to do (or not do) next.
Do you move on when you get ‘good enough’ at something, or do you like to fully master it first? Or both? Share your story in the comments!