Why you should seek steep learning curves

By Robert Half on 25 March 2014

There is some confusion about exactly what a steep learning curve really is. In educational psychology, the term means a task that is relatively easy to learn and therefore doesn’t require a lot of time or experience. In the business world, it has come to mean exactly the opposite and refers to a skill that is difficult to master but needs to be acquired in a short amount of time. Confusing, isn’t it?

We’ll go with the business-world definition. So why should you seek a difficult learning experience? There are numerous compelling reasons:

  • It will make you stand out to employers as someone who can be given a difficult or challenging job and get it done.
  • Over time, you will acquire a greater range and level of skills compared with your competition.
  • There is an exponential gain that occurs with learning – the more you learn, the better you become at learning.

Become a multi-skilled individual

The most important reason is that having a diverse range of skills provides a fantastic long-term payoff. Being a specialist in one area is a guarantee of employment, but being the person who can move between different skill sets and have an overall understanding of the big picture is what will move you up the ladder. It’s a bit like an orchestra, which consists of people who are experts at one instrument, but the person who gets the big bucks and all the kudos is the conductor, who is usually competent across a range of instruments and understands how they all work together.

If you look at the top echelon of any business, you’ll soon discover that the people getting the big pay packets are usually multi-skilled individuals who have worked in diverse positions, though usually within one or two industries. That’s because successful management isn’t really about skills or even knowledge, but the ability to respond to change and challenge with confidence.

Heuristic thinking

That requires the ability to think quickly, to improvise, to make decisions based on limited information and to take risks based on intuition. Intuition isn’t a mystical skill. In psychology, it’s called ‘heuristic thinking’, and it refers to a person’s ability to take mental shortcuts based on experience.

A heuristic is a bit like a mental map that simplifies reality to a workable size, in much the same way that a topographic map contains a tiny fraction of the information that is present in the actual terrain, but it’s enough to be useful. Top-level managers aren’t experts at all the details of their business, but they’ve developed mental maps that give them enough information to make useful decisions.

The real value of seeking steep learning curves is that it forces you to develop this heuristic ability – the capacity to recognise patterns in information quickly and the confidence to know that most of the time the conclusions you reach will work.

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