Compounding Is Unintuitive Because the Initial Curve Feels Flat

I’ve always wondered why the nature of compounding and any exponential relationship feels unintuitive. That is until I read this quote from Paul Graham’s essay How to do great work.

The trouble with exponential growth is that the curve feels flat in the beginning. It isn’t; it’s still a wonderful exponential curve. But we can’t grasp that intuitively, so we underrate exponential growth in its early stages.

We tend to understand immediate relationships easily, but when it comes to exponential growth over time, the outsized gain occurs at the end. That’s simple to visualize (draw and upward facing curve) but hard to know when you’re on it.

It will feel closer to flat or linear when you are at the head of the curve over short time windows. Even more difficult, results are not always easily as observable. For example, how would you know you are thinking better thoughts?

The point is, you might need to slog through some things for awhile to begin seeing the result of exponential growth that was already happening.

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