S-Curve Thinking: Why Your Life Looks Like a Wobbly Line
When It Rains, It Pours
When the pandemic hit - when it truly, finally hit and sent us all into lockdown - a lot went wrong for me all at once. The income to my business stalled, a relationship I was in started to break apart and I ended up eating and drinking my feelings for longer than I'm comfortable to admit. What started off as bad news turned into a situation that only seemed to get worse, and it was picking up the pace every day. It wasn't enough for there to just be a pandemic, there were other problems, and they just kept on coming.
The London buses that rumble along near my house reminded me of the old saying that you'll wait forever for one to come along, then three will arrive at the same time. What works for buses also applies to life. Bad news doesn't necessarily have to happen in threes, but when one thing goes wrong it has a multiplying effect, making it easier for something else to go wrong. And then another. And then another.
Those early months of the pandemic and the lockdown that followed have forever changed how I think about failure, success and what to do about it.
Unless we make an effort to do otherwise, we think of life like a straight line. We do A, which will lead us to B. Eventually we reach C and continue, ever onwards. The human mind likes to think in these straight lines because they follow a clear path, with cause and effect laid neatly end to end. This is narrative - it's how we've communicated with each other and, crucially, with ourselves ever since we’ve been able to. 'Everything happens for a reason,' feels like the right thing to say because it helps us build a story about ourselves that we can comfortably explain and rationalise. We do this all the time - on social media, on about pages, over cups of tea with a close friend or in our diaries, in secret, in the middle of a dark, anxious night.
Although we do it to make sense of our lives, plenty of things happen for no reason at all. What we choose to do about it, though, is significant.
Like the money we invest carefully and wisely, or the debt we throw onto a credit card, our successes and failures accrue interest and build over time. They compound, quietly, until we eventually reap what we’ve sown. To paraphrase the bible, 'to those that have shall more be given, to those that have not shall it be taken away.' Jesus might have been talking about 'the good news', but what he's really talking about are compounding effects.
We can find these compounding effects everywhere in our lives: health, fitness, relationships, careers, finances and happiness. There are more - spirituality, if that's your bag - but these are the key areas.
For example, if we build our muscles, there’s a compound effect as we continue - we can lift heavier and heavier things, our metabolism rises, we sleep better, our heart health improves. All of these effects accrue to the benefit of building our muscles even faster and stronger than before. It compounds. Similarly, if we lose a loved one we are stricken with grief. This grief may lead to depression, or anxiety, or worse. This may bring with it any number of negative side effects that only get worse unless we do something about it. Again, unless we act, it compounds.
Falling, Climbing, Stuck in the Middle
What happens to one S Curve can affect another. When I suffered setbacks to my career - as I did during the pandemic - the stress and anxiety hurt my ability to keep my health and fitness going in a positive direction, among other things. I felt sluggish and low on energy, compounding the stress even further. Hard times can be a stressful exercise in spinning plates. In a crisis, all our energy goes towards stopping the slide and little goes into building the future.
What we need to do to reverse failure is not the same as what we need to build success. The two are complementary, but one has to come before the other if anything is going to stick. What we need to dig ourselves out of a hole one day won't help us climb a mountain on the next; just as paying down debt doesn't make a good investor or losing weight doesn't make an athlete, we must put one thing before the other then change what we do as we keep on going.
After paying a debt we make a huge mistake if we then start recklessly spending our way into debt again. We owe it to ourselves to continue up the curve, leaving the neutral position in the middle and changing what we do to keep the momentum.
Many of us feel stuck in that middle, though, marooned on a plateau. Things aren’t going terribly, but we're also not where we know we could be. The upward climb seems impossible to begin and, besides, we're spending too much time worrying about falling off the edge that it feels like we'll never have the time to make things happen.
When we stop thinking in straight lines and start making things a bit wobbly, everything changes.
Working the Curves
Self-help books and pop psychology are riddled with the bizarre idea that your circumstances don't matter, that you can succeed whatever the situation. (‘It's up to you, and what you do!’) While this feels positive and energetic, it's only partly true. If we completely ignore our circumstances we’ll end up making bad decisions.
This is especially true if we experience great success in one area of our life at the expense of another. The cliché example is the workaholic with a stellar career making no time for their loved ones. One day they head home to find their partner has left, taking the kids with them. Should this person decide to go for that promotion and succeed whatever their circumstances? Probably not.
S-Curve thinking includes how we think about our circumstances and what we do about them. The first step in working the curves is fixing what's broken before we do anything else.
Put the Brakes on the Bad Stuff
Whether you've gotten yourself into a pinch or you've been put into one, the first thing you need to do is get out of it as much as possible. Depending on how bad it is, it might be affecting other areas of your life. You owe it to yourself to stop the bleeding, fix the leak or heal the hurt before you move on. Left unchecked it might be fine for a while, but it will only come back to bite you in time.
Look for Compound Opportunity
Once things have leveled off and your plates are all spinning, a brief window opens. Through that window, we need to find something to work on that will compound over time. Whether that's building a relationship, making investments or producing a body of creative work, it almost doesn't matter. It's better to choose something that you can begin building, leave if you have to, and return to work on again and again. If we flit between distractions, keeping ourselves busy, the next crisis will close the window with nothing built, and nothing to show for the time.
Build Long Term Assets
The more work we commit to something that can grow over the long term, the better. I write these articles because, over time, they help me to think and build my thinking process. The compounding effect is that I accrue a body of work that I can refer to, and refer others to. To do this effectively, focus on something to the exclusion of other projects. Work on only one thing, concentrating your effort. Do not try to build ten houses one brick at a time, pick a house and lay ten bricks there instead.
With something substantial built, we loop back to the beginning. While we've been at work, something else may have begun to teeter on the edge, or a new opportunity may have come up. Sometimes, these opportunities arise because of what we’ve been working on. Every so often, it pays to review what’s going on before we put our heads down again.
Over time, the benefits of what we build will make it easier to stop any future slides into negative territory. This work takes time, and the results are not usually immediate or obvious. But they are there, slowly piling up, so long as we stick at it.
I've spent the last few months working away at doing exactly what I suggest above; things are now far better than they were as I described them at the start of the article. Although the path ahead isn't guaranteed to be clear, I've a hunch I'm going in the right direction.