The Exponential Curve

According to legend, movie stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck jump started their careers by co-authoring the script for Good Will Hunting as young unknown actors and peddled it around Hollywood until they found an interested studio.

In reality, the story is a little different. Matt Damon had already appeared in 11 feature films in the 10 year preceding Good Will Hunting, and Ben Affleck had appeared in 8 films and 8 TV shows. Both had been getting acting jobs since high school, Affleck making his debut in a Burger King commercial.

We get so blinded by news stories of over-night successes that we forget almost all successful careers are exponential trajectories. They bump along scraping the runway for a very long time, then barely lifting off the surface coasting parallel to the ground a few feet in the air until almost the end of the runway,  then across the grassy field at low altitude hardly clearing the one-story rooftops outside the fence. But then, with a yank of the joystick, they climb almost vertically up into the stratosphere.

We have all seen the exponential curve in practice. Remember the classmate who claimed that he aced the exams with only three days of study? He wasn’t actually lying, he was just talking about the last three days of his exponential curve. Same thing with physical training that seem to get you zero results for the first three months.

Almost all efforts take the course of an exponential curve. A. S. Byatt published her first novel after producing a series of short stories for literary magazines. Those short stories, now mostly forgotten, had to collect mountains of rejection notices before they were published. Then, with a track record of published works under her belt, she was ready to start submitting novels, which in turn collected rejection notices until one, The Shadow of The Sun, was finally published in 1964. She kept writing novels and published three more until she produced Possessioon in 1990 which won the Booker Prize. Today, Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, DBE, is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.

All careers start by bumping along on the gravel runway. If you give up there, you will never leave the ground. If Ben Affleck had given up after the Burger King commercial, or before that at the school play level, he never would have gotten his two Academy Awards.

You just have to keep believing that the little progress you are making today will make a difference later when your career really starts picking up in that exponential curve. It is not just a matter of getting a lucky break or a chance discovery. It is the little victories you managed to pile up that tip the scales at some point when it reaches critical mass. Until then, you just have to keep tossing pebbles.


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