Arnold Schwarzenegger – Master of the “S” Curve ?

The “S” Curve has been bothering me a lot both from an indvidual and corporate perspective. Sometimes i think it is probably a self fulfilling prophecy, but on the other hand there is a preponderance of data in support of it.

In line with the “S” curve thinking, there is probably something that goes with success that prevents us from succeeding again and again. As i started looking at the harmful aspects of success, i came across an extremely interesting book –  Paradox of Success by John R O’Neil. Here is an excerpt:

Success may breed failure

John gets an early morning phone call from a Fortune 500 corporation. The CEO had locked himself in his office and was refusing to come out.  John was shocked by this event as had known the CEO very well. To his knowledge, the CEO was a hard driving leader and extremely competent as well.

John analyses this CEO’s problem and many other high profile failures and in the process explains how there is a clear pattern in the way we learn. Apparently, when level of expertise is plotted with respect to time, you guessed it right, it traces an “S” Curve.

Slope of Diminishing Returns

When we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the “S” curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatic speed helping us to climb the steep the slope of the “S” curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From now on even if we put a lot of effort in improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the “S” curve is also called as the slope of diminishing returns.  At the top of the “S” curve many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the resident experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill has become important which renders this expert obsolete.

Mountains of Learning

Is there a way out ? What do we do after we reach the peak of the “S” curve ?

To answer that question, I would like to use a metaphor of mountains.  Climbing a mountain is sort of similar to learning new skills. Initially we start at the bottom of the mountain with a clear estimate and a timeline to climb the mountain. As we come to grips with the terrain of the mountain, we are able to climb more efficiently and reach the summit.  Having reached the summit, you cannot stay there for long depending on the altitude of the summit.  For instance, if  we were climbing Mt. Everest, we can be there at the peak only for a few minutes due to atmospheric conditions and human limitations.

Therefore, we have to start our descent pretty soon. But if we are keen mountaineers, we set our sights on the next mountain to climb. In a similar way, when we reach the top of the “S” curve of a particular skill we should start the “S” curve of the next important skill. Ultimately, our skill set should look like a mountain range with a lot of mountains (or a lot of “S” curves)  in it representing various skills that we have learnt.

Learning new skills is really very important for us to lead a successful life. In our Information Age today, where everything you do is skills-based, learning has become even more critical. The “S”  curve does seem to have a lot of truth in it, we should ensure that we are never caught on top of it for too long!

Master of the “S” Curve

I think many of us trace multiple “S” curves in our lives as we learn new skills but mostly these are incremental or continuous transitions. To take the idea to its extreme, I wanted to see if there is anyone out there who we could call the Master of the “S” curve – per my definition, that someone should have atleast 3 discontinuous “S” curves (major career transitions) in their lives.  I set the threshold at 3 because a lot of people have 2 “S curves – for instance, many politicians come from other walks of life so a lot of them automatically have 2 “S” curves.  Using a quick and dirty research approach, i looked at  individuals both contemporaries and historical, including the TIME 100 greatest people, 100 greatest people of all time . I  excluded innately multi-faceted geniuses such as Leonardo Da Vinci. Of course, i did not include people who did not become famous because it is hard to know about them.
Believe it or not I could shortlist only 2 people – Albert Schweitzer (musician/theologist, doctor, humanitarian/social reformer),  Benjamin Franklin (printer/publisher, inventor, statesman/politican).
As i was thinking about this subject, i came across this amazing story of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climb to the top. Although this story is categorizing him as a phenomenal salesman, to me it exemplifies the capability to keep re-inventing oneself systematically. Arnie,  in my opinion is one that has 3 “S”  curves (bodybuilder, actor, governor) in his career. Wired magazine’s latest issue (Sep 2004) has featured Arnie on its cover and the cover story mentions that Warren Buffett has compared Arnie to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Only time will tell if he truly belongs in the august company of Ben Franklin, Albert Schweitzer and FDR.

“S” Curve is Omnipresent

The “S” curve is actually a more widespread phenomenon. Researchers have proved that the it closely mirrors product life cycles in the market, species life cycles etc.

Volterra and Lotka built  a set of mathematical equations known as Lotka-Volterra’s Equations (Counterpoint1  Counterpoint2) which they used to model the predator-prey population.  Later Cesare Marchetti, an Austrian Physicist used the equations to predict energy demands.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating applications of  “S” curves, please read Predictions by Dr. Theodore Modis, where he uses them to model the staying power of products, birthrate among women, number of fatal car accidents and many others.  “S” Curves have now been applied to project management as well.

Thinking further – are there corporations who have 3+ discontinuous or major “S” curves ? – something to think and write about later.



  1. Anonymous said August 23, 2004, 5:04 pm:

    I think it is reasonable to expect multiple S curves for people that start out with using their physical talents as their primary career. Sports personalities would fall into this category. Once they have achieved their peak, they can no longer excel in their primary skill. With a long life ahead of them, they are forced to either pick up a new skill or use their previous talent to create new roles for themselves in the same area. Coaches, commentators etc come to mind. With Arnold, acting was a natural progression of his body building skills. These would be Evolutionary S curves vs revolutionary S curves.

    It must also be noted that skills acquired during the first S curve are transferable to the future curves. One should expect that future skill acqusitions should proceed at a faster rate than the first one, especially if specific patterns had been established in the first.

    It would be interesting to come up with personalities that exhibit revolutionary S curves.

  2. Anonymous said August 28, 2004, 12:58 am:

    Evolutionary and Revolutionary S curves – i think that is much better than the continuous and discontinuous S curves i came up with. Your observation that people starting with a career based on their physique are rather forced to start off on another path very early in their lives is a great point. However i think we may have to come with a category between evolutionary and revolutionary – Players becoming coaches/commentators or becoming GMs etc is an easier evolution than a bodybuilder becoming an actor that too one of the top box office draws of all time. I did some cursory research on who else has done something similar and Reg Park came up. Apparently he was the inspiration for Arnie. Another person that came up was Johnny Weissmuller (5 olympic medals, one of the best swimmers of his time). He became Tarzan in the movies and became even more famous, but again didn’t reach anywhere near Arnie’s success levels. So it does seem kind of rare for people to make this transition with extremely high levels of success. In terms of revolutionary ones, don’t know what you thought of Albert Schweitzer and Ben Franklin (see the orginial post) as people with revolutionary curves. Also isn’t it kind of surprising to see not many people with 3 “S” curves that too reaching the top in each of them !