Tell the difference between diminishing returns and compounding growth when it comes to investing in skills

When is it worth improving a skill you’re already good at, and when should you focus on other things?

I started thinking about this after a conversation about what it means to master the Emacs text editor. Someone wondered if the additional effort was really worth it. As I explored the question, I noticed that skills respond differently to the investment of time, and I wondered what the difference was.

For example, going from hunt-and-peck typing to touch-typing is a big difference. Instead of having to think about typing, you can focus on what you want to communicate or do. But after a certain point, getting faster at typing doesn’t give you as much of a boost in productivity. You get diminishing returns: investing into that skill yields less over time. If I type a little over 100 words per minute, retraining bad habits and figuring out other optimizations so that I can reach a rate of 150 words per minute isn’t going to make a big difference if the bottleneck is my brain. (Just in case I’m wrong about this, I’d be happy to hear from people who type that fast about whether it was worth it!)

Some skills seem shallow. There’s only so much you can gain from them before they taper off. Other skills are deeper. Let’s take writing, for instance. You can get to the point of being able to competently handwrite or type. You can fluently express yourself. But when it comes to learning how to ask questions and organize thoughts I’m not sure there’s a finish line at which you can say you’ve mastered writing. There’s always more to learn. And the more you learn, the more you can do. You get compounding growth: investing into that skill yields more over time.

I think this is part of the appeal of Emacs for me. Even after more than a decade of exploring it and writing about it, I don’t feel I’m at the point of diminishing returns. In fact, even the small habits that I’ve been focusing on building lately yield a lot of value.

No one can objectively say that a skill is shallow or deep. It depends on your goals. For example, I think of cooking as a deep skill. The more you develop your skills, the wider your possibilities are, and the more enjoyable it becomes. But if you look at it from the perspective of simply keeping yourself fueled so that you can concentrate on other things, then it makes sense to find a few simple recipes that satisfy you, or outsource it entirely by eating out.

It’s good to take a step back and ask yourself: What kind of value will you get from investing an hour into this? What about the value you would get from investing an hour in other things?

Build on your strengths where building on those strengths can make a difference. It can make a lot of sense to reach a professional level in something or inch towards becoming world-class. It could be the advantage that gets you a job, compensates for your weakness, opens up opportunities, or connects you to people. On the other hand, you might be overlearning something and wasting your time, or developing skills to a level that you don’t actually need.

When you hit that area of diminishing returns – or even that plateau of mediocrity – you can think about your strategies for moving forward. Consider:

  • What kind of return are you getting on your time? (understanding the value)
  • Is there a more effective way to learn? (decreasing your input)
  • Can you get more value out of your time from this skill or other skills? (increasing your output)
  • If you learn something else first,
    • will that make more of a difference in your life?
    • will that help you when you come back to this skill?

These questions are helping me decide that for me, learning more about colours is worthwhile, but drawing more realistic figures might not be at the moment; learning more about basic Emacs habits is better than diving into esoteric packages; and exploring questions, doing research, and trying things out is likely to be more useful than expanding my vocabulary. I’ll still flip through the dictionary every now and then, but I can focus on developing other skills.

How about you? What are you focusing on, and what helps you decide?

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  • John Cook

    I think your point about thinking about typing vs not thinking about typing applies more generally. The benefit of touch typing doesn’t primarily come from the speed per se but from freeing up your mind from having to think about typing. The same could be said about other technologies.

    With regard to Emacs specifically, the ideal customization makes something go way. If the number of keystrokes necessary to do something drops to zero, that’s a big win because it’s one less thing to think about. But otherwise, saving keystrokes per se isn’t necessarily a win. If I have to choose between M-x name-I-can-easily-remember and some cryptic key chord, the former may be less disruptive to my thinking.

    • Yes, this is why I hardly remember keybindings! =)

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