Forget about the y-intercept; slope is the only thing that matters in the long run.

Imagine your life as a line. On the x-axis, time. On the y-axis, think of a goal you're trying to achieve: whether a personal one like getting in shape or a professional one like getting that promotion.

Two variables describe every line: the y-intercept, where the line crosses the y-axis, and the slope, or how fast it changes over time.

If y-intercept is what you start with, then slope is how quickly you adapt, learn, and the effort you put in.

Even if one line starts well below the other, it will end up on top as long as it has a larger slope.

You've heard this advice before: be a lifelong learner, do a little bit every day, constantly be improving. But why is it so difficult to follow?

Well, over short periods, the results don't look promising. The shorter the interval, the flatter the lines look, regardless of how steep the slope is. When you're far behind, this is discouraging.

But this should be a reminder that it pays off in the end.

The short run is always longer than we think, but the long run is always shorter than we think.

On hiring, take a chance with that candidate with potential but with little experience.

On ideas, don't give up when things aren't living up to your standards — every great idea started with a spark.

On learning a new skill, improve a little every day. Continuous improvements add up over time.

On motivation, use the right time scale. Everything looks flat over a small enough interval.

On starting in last place, know that slope always beats y-intercept in the long run.


John Ousterhout, a CS professor at Stanford, uses this idea in his lectures. You can find some of his lecture transcripts here.

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