this weekWhat Goes Around

September 25, 2004

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

The S Curve

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete.

Success May Breed Failure
John R. O’Neil has written an extremely interesting book titled Paradox of Success. In this book, O’Neil analyzes many high-profile failures and in the process explains how the S curve closely fits the pattern of learning and how success causes people to fail because some strengths have become so accentuated to now be the cause of their failure.

Is there a way out? What do we do after we reach the peak of the S curve?

One answer is that we can start a new S curve. By analogy, consider mountain climbing, which is sort of similar to learning new skills. Initially, we start at the bottom with a clear estimate and a timeline to climb the mountain. As we come to grips with the terrain of the mountain, we are able to climb more efficiently and reach the summit. Having reached the summit, we cannot stay there for long, depending on the altitude. For instance, if we were climbing Mt. Everest, we could be there at the peak only for a few minutes due to atmospheric conditions and human limitations. Descent becomes important pretty soon. But if we are keen mountaineers, we set our sights on the next mountain to climb. In a similar way, when we reach the top of the S curve of a particular skill, we should start the S curve of the next important skill. Ultimately, our skill set should look like a mountain range with a lot of mountains (or a lot of S curves) in it representing various skills that we have learned.

Many of us trace multiple S curves in our lives as we learn new skills, but mostly these are incremental or evolutionary transitions. It is harder to make major or revolutionary transitions—ones that involve us moving from one career to a completely different one—say, a teacher becoming a politician.

Master of the S Curve
To take the idea of making revolutionary transitions to its extreme, I wanted to see if there is anyone out there we could call the Master of the S Curve—someone I define as having had at least three revolutionary S curves in his or her life. I set the threshold at three, because a lot of people have two S curves—for instance, many politicians come from other walks of life, and many sportspersons become commentators or coaches. Therefore, a lot of them automatically have two S curves.

Using a quick and dirty research approach, I looked at individuals both contemporary and historical, including TIME magazine’s 100 greatest people list and other Greatest-People-of-All-Time lists. I was looking for people who reached a high degree of success in one field, transitioned into an unrelated field, achieved success in that field, and so on—3 or more times. Since I felt that innately multi-faceted geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci excelled in many fields at the same time, I excluded them. Of course, I also did not include people who did not become famous because it is hard to know about them. Believe it or not, I could shortlist only two people: Albert Schweitzer (musician/theologian, doctor, humanitarian/social reformer) and Benjamin Franklin (printer/publisher, inventor, statesman/politician).

Many scientists have shown that when you expect something to turn out a certain way, it almost always does—a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a note of caution, while we should be aware of the S Curve and how it affects us, we should not automatically assume and expect that the S Curve will play out no matter what we do. If we do that, we will take away the power of human endeavor. —Rajagopal Sukumar

Guest author Rajagopal Sukumar lives in Chennai, India and serves as the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) of a software consulting company that specializes in the global delivery model. You can read his personal blog at www.sastwingees.org.

More Information about The S Curve…

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The Paradox of Success by John R. O’Neil is a must-read book on this subject.

For more information on my shortlisted Masters of the S Curve, read about Albert Schweitzer or Benjamin Franklin. Self-fulfilling prophecies are described at Fact-Index.com.

Although this article covers the application of S Curve to the acquisition of expertise, S Curves are something akin to a law of nature and has been applied to many other facets of our world. If you want to learn more about the fascinating applications of S curves, please read Predictions by Dr. Theodore Modis, where he uses them to model the staying power of products, birthrate among women, number of fatal car accidents, and many others. Vito Volterra and Alfred Lotka built a set of mathematical equations for the S Curve known as the Lotka-Volterra Equations, which they used to model the predator-prey population. Cesare Marchetti, an Austrian physicist, used the equations to predict energy demands.

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Some more food for thought—are there corporations that have three or more revolutionary S Curves? From a corporate failure perspective, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma is a seminal work. The enormous amount of research that went into that book and the theoretical underpinnings that Christensen describes has made a huge impact on students of strategy such as me. The Innovator’s Solution—the follow-on to The Innovator’s Dilemma—had an even greater impact on me, owing to what I believe is a more cogent theoretical foundation than the first book.