Climbing the learning curve: The Breakthrough Count

I think everyone loves breakthroughs. Call them "Aha's!", or "I get it!" moments, or whatever you like, these are events that the brain loves.

Breakthrough moments are a critical part of the learning curve for new skills, like learning a new language, learning a new sport, or maybe learning a skill like computer programming or sailing.

In the first few hours of learning something completely new, there are many breakthroughs. Simple breakthroughs, sure, but the brain still gets a charge from them. It's a very high enjoyment-to-time-invested ratio. Sure, it can be confusing and overwhelming in moments as well, but to a curious and open student, confusion is simply the prelude to understanding.

As we continue learning and practicing our new endeavor or skill, however, the "breakthrough count" falls quickly. By 250 hours of skill practice, breakthroughs don't happen often.

Yet the complexity and sophistication of the later breakthroughs is very high as we gather hundreds of hours of practice at something. We begin to see things about this particular endeavor that others just don't see; we begin to develop a "touch". We begin to make it look easy - though it isn't, really.

When you know this curve and this relationship, you can understand the feelings you have when starting a new learning practice. It's fun at first, learning lots of new things quickly. Then the breakthrough count drops much more quickly than the skill level climbs, and then it isn't so much fun anymore. Each breakthrough requires much, much more effort and time than in the first dozen hours.

Consider also the social effects of jumping into something new. In the first few hours of learning a new skill, for example, your ability level is so low that you may well feel like a bumbling klutz. Yet, we support and encourage people at this stage. "He's just a beginner," we say. "Look how great he's doing for just starting out!" There is an agreed-upon excuse that everyone understands.

Once you reach about 60 hours in, though, this social dynamic changes. Now you know enough that you are no longer excused as a beginner, but your skill level - compared to those that have hundreds or thousands of hours of practice - is still below-par. Because you can execute the skill at all, you are now directly compared to others that have the same skill but have many more hours of practice.

This stage is not so fun. If a newbie hasn't quit before this point, then they will probably quit here. In a way, this is the vetting point: the people that make it past this spot can go on to become very skilled.

After you have 1,000 hours or so of practice, you reach a level of undeniable competency. Breakthroughs are few, but they are at a high level of sophistication, and that means they are very satisfying. The "brain delight" from tiny breakthroughs is tiny, and it is correspondingly bigger for these higher-order breakthroughs.

At 10,000 hours, says many sources such as author Malcolm Gladwell, you reach mastery. A top-tier level in skill practitioners.

I know I feel better about climbing a learning curve - and the frustration and changes in breakthroughs - if I'm conscious of where I am on this graph as I practice. When I feel like quitting, this graphs tells me all I need to know to keep going.

Or, I should say, it tells me all I need to know to understand the feelings and to make an intelligent decision about going forward and investing more hours. It calls forth the question, "do I enjoy this process for the process itself?" If the answer is yes, then I can continue on, with an attitude and steadfastness that most beginners lack.

If the answer is no, then I can switch my time to something else I enjoy without feeling like a failure or less-than. It's a handy chart. May it help you enjoy exploring, experimenting and mastering what you choose. Carpe Diem!



Hi Katin!
This article has stuck in my mind ever since you posted it.

I think what you said is true, and that steep dropoff after being a novice is an important moment to face and understand. But also, I am starting to see my creative life as a long, slow slog through the middle ground of your chart. At first, after the dropoff from being a novice, I was paralyzed by my own expectations and barely managed to pick up a pencil for many years despite how much I enjoy drawing. Lately I find that short term productivity exercises - like one that I finished with some friends recently, The Month In Comics project - provide an artificial limitation that gives me an excuse similar to being a beginner. "If this comic isn't great, it's ok, because it's good in light of the time limitations." It creates a new reason for work not to be expected to be perfect. Ever since I started doing exercises like this a couple of years ago, I've been getting a lot more work done.

Your article puts an interesting spin on this that I wouldn't have seen otherwise, in that I can see these as being tricks for relieving the problem you spoke of - diminished rewards during the long middle stretch of the journey. So thanks for posting this!

Thanks for commenting and including your experience with the curve... I know how you feel. I wonder if today's tech and world of instant makes it even harder to get through those hours.

Think of it from a meta-view: the skill and muscle of persistence is also built over time and hours of practice... and we get so few hours to practice that in today's instant, distraction-filled world.

Really, you're building TWO skills by doing the hours in the middle... both drawing and persistence. And the latter is directly applicable to anything you want to work on long-term, as you get to know those moments of refocusing and practice strategies for returning to the activity again and again.

Also, practicing ways to make those middle hours more fun, perhaps with a curious perspective, is a potent life skill.

Best to you on your journey! May you find the juice!