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The Learning Curve

Keep your learning curve pointed upward

By Lee Callaway

When I was about 38, I was in a job where I felt dead-ended.

I felt that the people I graduated with were getting ahead of me, that somehow I was falling behind, and I needed more tools. I wondered whether I should go back to school to get an MBA.

I was sitting at my desk trying to think about this.

Without any preconceived notion of what I was doing, I drew a blank graph and labeled the vertical axis “Knowledge” and the horizontal axis “Age.”

I then started drawing a line to represent the rate of learning that might be taking place.

Learning curve graph

In your early years, the curve is almost straight up, because you start off knowing nothing. Learning to breathe, cry, take food from a breast or baby bottle — these are all 100% learning.

Then it tapers off at about 2, until you go to school at six. It tapers off again, and then high school is usually a jolt for most people. College is another jolt.

Then, I felt, most people taper off and go “flat” for the rest of their lives, and never trouble themselves to work at learning. Some people even forget stuff, or get stuck in prejudices and biases, and their knowledge level actually goes down.

I thought about my own experience, and realized that I had had some different experiences — when I had taken various “adult education” courses, or had put myself in a new learning situation, like a new job, my learning curve had actually gone up. Not much, but incrementally up. So far, no great insights.

Blinding glimpse of the obvious

I went down and looked at the years when I had been in these situations, and I realized these were the happiest times of my life.

The light bulb went on. I am happiest when I am learning.

A key to happiness, for me, is getting the learning curve pointed upward. I wasn’t sure which was the dependent and which the independent variable, but I was convinced enough that I should definitely go back to school at that point, which I did.

I enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Tennessee at UT Nashville, going to school at night and working in the daytime.

I decided that this was what I wanted to do, but not the way I wanted to do it. So I figured out a way to go back to school full time. I got into the Sloan Program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which awards an MS degree in Management in one year.

Both the UT and the Stanford experience convinced me that my insight had been correct — life is best when my learning curve is headed up.

So this has become one of my life principles — keep learning.

It’s the closest thing to the fountain of youth I’ve been able to discover. I’ll never stop trying to learn.

My mantra is, Go out and stand in the highway of ideas, and let them run over you. You’ll be better for it.

When you stop learning, you stop growing, and you start dying. I don’t plan to do that. In the year 2000, at the age of 63, I went back to school at the University of Phoenix and got an MS degree in Computer Information Systems.

Hey, now I need to go back to school to learn how to design websites!

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Last revised August 2007

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