The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. -Dr Albert Bartlett
The human brain is awesome, but it also has serious limitations – it’s horrible for instance at comprehending the exponential function.
It’s linear all the way.
Exponential math is basically the same as the snowball effect. When a snowball rolls down a hill, it gets bigger and it gets faster. It also gets bigger faster.
Here’s a great example from Chris Martenson…
If a single drop of water was placed on the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park and it magically doubled in size every minute, how long would it be before you drowned if you were handcuffed to the top of the bleachers?
A year? A month? A day?
The answer is actually 49 minutes.
In 49 minutes the magical drop of water would be to the top of the bleachers.
The really interesting thing is this: For the first 40 minutes it would seem as if nothing was happening. The grass might look a little moist but there would be no sign anything serious was happening. In fact after 45 minutes there would be less than 9 feet of water. At about 46 minutes it would become obvious that you were in serious trouble. The problem is, three minutes is not a lot of time to gnaw your arm off.
If your brain understood exponential math you might have started gnawing sooner. Then perhaps you would have survived, and they might even have made a movie about you.
So how does this lack of understanding hurt us? Why is this “shortcoming” such a big deal?
Because it makes us really crappy at planning for and predicting the future. There are three problems this causes.
First, it is why people are completely unprepared for massive changes when it is mathematically obvious they are coming. If current population trends, oil use trends, debt trends etc. continue there are going to be some HUGE changes on the horizon. And they will all happen in the “last three minutes”. We can easily prepare for the changes if we wrap our brains around the exponential function.
Here’s a local example: Local municipalities widen a road to relieve traffic congestion. But by the time the road is completed, traffic congestion is just as severe because no one anticipated the extra growth that was mathematically obvious from the beginning.
Second, it’s not just the bad stuff that is increasing exponentially. Technology is expanding at an exponential rate as well. Nano technology, biotech, robotics and the like will all take us by surprise in the “last three minutes.”
We’re not just awful at predicting the ominous outcomes of the exponential function, we’re awful at predicting the potential for awesomeness as well.
Third, We completely underestimate the effect small, incremental changes will have in our own lives. Linear thinking keeps people from making modest changes in their own lives because of the mistaken belief that they won’t have an effect – that only monumental change counts. But look at an exponential graph and you can clearly see how baby steps can result in massive change. This graph is showing a modest 1% change over time.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but it does not end with one.
Your first few steps take you to the car. Then you drive exponentially faster than you can walk. You drive to the airport. Then you fly exponentially faster than you could ever drive. Soon perhaps you will fly to the space station where you board a space ship and cruise exponentially faster than you could ever fly. Get the idea?
We don’t usually think about it this way. We just picture ourselves plodding along step after step for months and years.
As you know, I harp on the awfulness of television a lot. It’s one of the biggest wastes of our time. Here’s a little example to show you just how unproductive it is:
Wikipedia has over 4 million articles. Just the English language articles are more than any human being could read in a lifetime. It’s estimated that Wikipedia has taken over 100 million hours to create. But guess what? According to Clay Shirky, we spend more time than that every weekend just watching commercials.
That’s a colossal amount of wasted energy.
Want a great example of the exponential function in someone’s personal life? Check out the video of Chris Davis below.
Davis was a morbidly obese 700 pounds. He set a goal of completing an unbelievably brutal 13+ mile obstacle race called the Spartan Race. I know how brutal it is because I ran it in October. After his first few weeks of training, he could hardly walk and couldn’t do a single pushup. Then the exponential function kicked in… Just twenty weeks later he had lost 530 pounds, and in October of this year, ran and completed the Spartan.
As Chris demonstrates, overnight success stories are largely a myth. People put one foot in front of another for a long time and almost nothing happens… Then BOOM! Suddenly, overnight success.
If you want to be successful you know what to do. It is not luck. It’s just math.
Understand the power of the exponential function and put it to work for you.
For more on the importance of exponential function check out Dr Bartlett himself.