A Little Bit of Slope Makes Up for a Lot of Y-Intercept


Math can sometimes be useful in explaining things.  I came across this witty quote from Professor John Ousterhout.  He’s a computer science professor at Stanford that spends 15 minutes every week in his lectures giving a life lesson.  This is one of my favourites.

The basic idea is you want to be the red line and not the blue line.  From one of his lectures (emphasis mine):

“So in a mathematical sense it’s kind of obvious.  But I didn’t really mean in a mathematical sense, I think this is a pretty good guideline for life also.  What I mean is that how fast you learn is a lot more important than how much you know to begin with.  So in general I say that people emphasize too much how much they know and not how fast they’re learning.

So I think this is a really interesting concept you can apply in a lot of different ways.  And the key thing here I think is that slow and steady is great.  You don’t have to do anything heroic.  You know the difference in slopes doesn’t have to be that great if you just every day think about learning a little bit more and getting a little bit better, lots of small steps, its amazing how quickly you can catch up and become a real expert in the field.”

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard something along the lines of “be a lifelong learner” or “learn something new everyday”.  There are so many variations on this cliche that it’s not really that interesting anymore but that doesn’t mean it’s not good advice.

What I really enjoyed about this rephrasing is the visual.  It allows you to look at what’s currently happening (x=0) and what could happen in the future (if you’re focusing on “slope”).  Everyone has known someone who is the blue line.  The know-it-all genius who seems to be better or know more than you.  But what’s interesting is that edge usually disappears relatively quickly if they’re not focused on “slope” (which I’ve seen happen to many bright people more often than not).

Focusing on “slope” is hard though.  Sometimes it’s a grind.  But that’s not unlike most things in life.  The people who can “grind” away and focus on the “slope” are ultimately the ones who are setting themselves up for success.  Definitely not sexy (it is math after all), definitely not romantic, just the reality.

Random thought: Instead of focusing on “slope”, you should be focusing on the “slope” of your “slope”, or the “slope” of your “slope” of your “slope”, or … On second thought, maybe just “slope” is fine.