Riding the Tipping Point: 6 Tips for Using Exponential Growth


If nobody can work 100 times harder than you, then how can some people earn 100, 1 000 or even a 1 000 000 times the results? The answer is that most problems don’t work on a straight line, giving the same amount of results for each hour you invest.

The Stonecutter’s Dilemma is a good example of this problem. As a stonecutter, you might crash your hammer into a rock a hundred times without seeing anything more than a scratch on the surface. Then, on the hundred and first blow, the entire rock splits in two. It wasn’t that your 101st strike was particularly strong, instead, it revealed the unseen damage built up with the hundred strikes before it.

Malcolm Gladwell calls this phenomenon a tipping point, of which he wrote a book by the same name. In the book, Gladwell describes how some diseases work on an exponential scale. A thousand people with a 24-hour flu, each contacting fifty people a day, might infect a thousand more people, keeping the virus from exploding.

But if those thousand flu carriers contact another five people each day, they might infect 1100 people instead of 1000. That 1100 would infect over 1200 the day after and it would only take a few weeks before the flu has tipped and spread over an entire city.

Tipping Points and You

The tipping point phenomenon, where crossing a certain threshold has runaway consequences, can have a big impact on your work. Tipping points happen in some areas of life more than others, but it is still important to keep this imbalance of effects in mind.

Blogging and earning passive income are areas highly affected by tipping points. Some of the posts I’ve written on this website have received hundreds of times the traffic than regular entries. A small increase in quality and bit of luck can cause word of mouth traffic to explode.

Although your health doesn’t have compounding returns, gaining weight can be seen as a negative version of the tipping point. Eating 100-200 calories more a day than you burn off can result in gaining an extra ten pounds over a year. Less than a muffin more per day is enough to throw off the balance.

How to Make Use of the Tipping Point

The most important lesson about exponential growth is to realize that results won’t match up with effort. Unfortunately the bigger the potential upside (setting up a six-figure blog, launching a best-selling book, etc.), the bigger the delay. Here are some tips (no pun intended) on using tipping points in your daily life:

  1. Focus on first-order improvements. A first-order improvement is an increase in quality. Eating healthier and eating less is a first-order improvement, losing weight or dropping your blood pressure are second-order improvements. Focusing on first-order improvements keeps you moving forward before you reach a tipping point.
  2. Look for easy tips. Find areas that, if you made a concentrated effort, could easily expand into further possibilities. Working on a productive habit to save you an hour each day, might give you the time you need to invest in yourself. Getting yourself to exercise regularly could give you the tip you need in your energy levels or self-confidence.
  3. Get internal validation. External validation comes from being successful and getting results. However, if tipping points rule your efforts, then you won’t get validation even if you are doing everything right. Picking work and activities you find intrinsically motivating can give you the psychic energy to keep persisting, even if external progress is flatlining.
  4. Projects before goals. I like to distinguish between projects and goals. While a project is something you invest energy and build towards, a goal simply represents a destination. By emphasizing projects, your feedback stays tied to your results.
  5. No tweak is unimportant. Even little improvements can push you closer towards a tipping point. Perfectionism is bad when it keeps you from finishing. Instead work like open-source software which is always released, but is constantly being tweaked or improved.
  6. Plan for the worst. The worst-case whenever dealing with a huge-upside tipping point is that it will never come. You might be the aspiring author, struggling entrepreneur or actor forever. Only take on long-haul projects if you can enjoy the process. That way even if the worst-case does happen, you’ve still had a great ride.

Starting Points for Exponential Thinking

Tipping points aren’t the best model to use everywhere, but there are some places you might want to do more exponential thinking. Here’s a quick list of ideas to get the snowball rolling:

  1. Learning. If you learn holistically, then each idea you pick up increases your ability to learn new ideas. Exponential learning isn’t something most people consider when reading a book.
  2. Money. Does your money earn you money? Even if you aren’t investing large amounts, you can still open up an ING account to keep whatever money you don’t need for checking.
  3. Skills. Learning new skills tends to work on a logarithmic scale. That is, it can take six months to have 80% proficiency and twenty years to get 95%. However, the value of that skill tends to work exponentially. One designer might only be 10% better than you but earn 10x the income.
  4. Social Networks. Increasing the amount of new people you seek out each day improves your social circle in an exponential fashion as one person refers you to their friends.