WHILE growth is never easy, we are at our best when we are growing. And the more we grow, the more we are capable of growing. It would make sense then that we are intentional about it. Sometimes we don’t know where to start or get tired or overwhelmed by the effort, but there is a pattern to it that, when we understand it, can help us achieve the growth we seek.
In Smart Growth, Whitney Johnson says that “every new skill learned, every challenge faced, takes the form of a distinct learning curve”—an S Curve. Along that curve are six stages of growth whereby we can pinpoint where we are along that curve and prepare ourselves for what to expect and how we should respond.
As illustrated in the chart below, there are three phases—Launch Point, Sweet Spot, and Mastery. Each phase has two stages, making up the six stages of growth: Explorer, Collector, Accelerator, Metamorph, Anchor, and Mountaineer. “Each phase of the S Curve of Learning is marked by its own distinctive characteristics, frustrations, and thrills.”
At the Launch Point, we are exploring opportunities—new S Curves. We begin at the Explorer stage. Many opportunities will present themselves, but we want to focus on those that will take us where we want to go. This stage will feel slow as we work through the questions we need to ask. For example, Is it achievable? Is it familiar yet novel? Does it align with my values? And Is the reward worth the cost?
It’s when you do your homework before committing to a course of action. Not all S Curves lead to where we want to go. Being true to your why results in growth. You are conscious of your life’s purpose; you’re focusing your time and effort in areas that further your purpose.
Once we choose a course of action, we become the Collector. We are gathering evidence that we are on the right curve. Again, progress may seem slow here, but it is essential so that as you move into the next phase, you don’t regret it.
Sometimes it’s hard to get started. The slow pace at the launch point of a new S Curve can defy us. But if we take time to explore, we will find the right fit. By collecting quantitative and qualitative data and resources—and curating to eliminate the deadweight—we prepare to tip into the sweet spot of momentum.
We now hit the rising slope of the S Curve. The pace becomes faster. “We are gaining confidence that we can become who we set out to be, hope swells as our growth accelerates.”
We are now at the Accelerator stage. We are producing more results with less effort. We want to spend as much time of our day working on our chosen S Curve.
There are fewer gaps in your knowledge, and you have a good sense of where the remaining gaps lie. You’re making connections, deliberate choices about how you want to grow, and those choices become more automatic as stress and growth approach equilibrium.
As you grow, what was once was unfamiliar to you is becoming automatic. You are becoming what you set out to be. You are a Metamorph.
This stage is exciting because everything is working; it feels fast-paced compared to the earlier stages, and you are exhilarated by the combination of challenge, productivity, and growth. Similarly, your brain chemistry shifts from the headwinds of stress response to providing supportive dopamine rewards as your predictive model improves.
Make the most of the sweet spot for as long as possible, because that’s where you are going to do your best work. This is where the magic happens, where caterpillars become butterflies.
At the top of the S Curve we have accomplished what we have set out to do. The new you is the new normal. We are now in the Anchor stage. It’s time to reflect and celebrate. Things slow again.
The Anchor stage is a brief season of rest and reflection before you take the next leap. With your celebration complete, outline what you’ll do next. Is now the time to reconsider compelling opportunities you turned down to stay focused. Are you drawn toward a radically different S Curve such as a career pivot or a move? Anchoring gives you stability and confidence. Chart your next steps from this point of strength.
At the top of the learning curve, you are a Mountaineer. Once you reach the summit, it’s time to find the next mountain to climb. It was hard work to reach the top, but it’s time to find a new adventure—a new launch point.
Learning is the oxygen of human growth. When learning diminishes, so do we. Learning is essential to our continued development, particularly in adulthood when the sponge-like mindset we had as children hardens into a more fixed range of assumptions.
Precarious as it is, the peak of an S Curve can—ironically—feel like a good place to stop. Getting here was hard. We may be tempted to rest on our learning. But leaving may prove difficult if we linger, and our learning-hungry brain begins to starve.
We need a growth ecosystem. We don’t climb our S Curve alone. Nor should we think we can. We need support and guidance. And those may be different people as you move along the S Curve.
On the launch point, we need support: Teachers, trainers, and truth tellers to help us explore and collect data to determine whether we should continue on a particular curve.
In the sweet spot, we need focus. We need people to honor our growing need for autonomy, coaching us as we gain in competence and stature.
In the mastery phase, we need people who can celebrate with us as we drop anchor on our new self.
We also should contribute to the growth ecosystem for the growth of others. There are people who need us.
Our greatest legacy will be how we draw from our stores to help others grow. We must balance our take with our give, not depriving others, not poisoning the system. We must add sunshine. We must encourage young stems to grow.
Smart Growth is a remarkable look at how we grow. Whitney has provided us with a new way to look at life—intentionally. A way to see a pathway to our potential. The S Curve provides that pathway and an understanding of how we grow—slow, fast, slow. We learn how to manage through the entire growth process—Launch Point, Sweet Spot, and Mastery.
What I have presented here is just a brief overview. There are so many insights found here to help you and those around you grow. And the case studies and stories just make it all the more compelling. Each section ends with a summary for Smart Growth leaders to help us grow our people. You find information on how to manage people at each phase based on both their career stage and the type of organization in which they work.