Over the past week, I’ve been feeling really behind on work.
For those of you who don’t know much about me, in May I was hired on as a Social Entrepreneurship Fellow at Thrivent Financial – which basically means I’m an intern for a contracted year. I graduated with a Political Science and Spanish double major and a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies, so how I ended up interning for a financial institution is anyone’s best guess. I had worked for Thrivent the summer before my senior year at Olaf, though, so I figured it would be easy enough to jump back into the corporate world. And for a few months, it was. I started work on June 13th, and up until about one week ago things were coming along fine. And then, for some reason, I got majorly stressed out.
I tried to explain what was going on to my coworker, Lane, who is now a hired full time employee but last year was a Fellow like me. He listened to my rambling like a champ and then explained that he definitely experienced a steep learning curve during the first few months of his fellowship, and that he had struggled to understand how all of the smaller pieces fit together into one big story.
I’ll be honest with you (because apparently for me this blog is all about confessions): I’ve never understood the meaning of the phrase “steep learning curve”. That hasn’t stopped me from using it occasionally, because I’m a poser who thinks she understands the English language. But beyond a vague sense that it implies fighting an uphill battle, I’m clueless about the roots of the phrase. So naturally I hit up Wikipedia.
“Steep learning curve”
The familiar expression “steep learning curve” may refer to either of two aspects of a pattern in which the marginal rate of required resource investment is initially low, perhaps even decreasing at the very first stages, but eventually increases without bound.
Early use of the metaphor focused on the pattern’s positive aspect, namely the potential for quick progress in learning (as measured by, e.g., memory accuracy or the number of trials required to obtain a desired result) at the introductory or elementary stage. Over time, however, the metaphor has become more commonly used to focus on the pattern’s negative aspect, namely the difficulty of learning once one gets beyond the basics of a subject.
Right now, I think the connotation of “steep learning curve” as I understand it is more negative.
I didn’t anticipate that going into the working world would necessarily be hard, although I did expect it to be challenging. I wasn’t the valedictorian of my graduating class and I didn’t leave with any top honors, but my time at St. Olaf helped me to grow in self-confidence and personal pride. I had professors, friends and employers who thankfully noticed the skills I do possess, and inspired me to reach for higher goals and to test out new ways of thinking. Because of that blessing I had expected to dive headfirst into Thrivent with Ole innovation to burn. There’s something about being on the Hill that makes you believe you can be a social activist superhero the minute you wave goodbye to the wind turbine.
There came a time last week, though, where I found myself staring from my To-Do list to my computer without the ability to process where the two were supposed to meet. I had answered so many emails, scheduled so many meetings for other people, and jumped between so many tasks, that I hadn’t really advanced any of my projects to a stage I felt comfortable with. Simple things that were only supposed to last a few days – at least in my mind – were consuming more than a week. And I realized: because I’ve spent the majority of my developmental years in school, I have no idea how to feasibly measure the time it takes to complete a task outside of the classroom. Following a major initiative through from point A to point Z, and dealing with points J, O and X in the process, can take much more energy and commitment than even the most horrific of Spanish papers. And maybe I don’t know as much about working at Thrivent as I thought I did.
The learning curve is steep.
So when Lane told me that it had taken him a few months to get used to life in the corporate office, I was relieved. Right now it feels like I’ve taken two giant steps back from where I was on June 13th. But I suppose the point of the learning curve isn’t to intimidate, or to make you feel like you’re faced with an impossible climb. It’s to encourage you to embrace the upward momentum…even if it sometimes feels like you have to claw your way to the top.
After taking some time to reflect I’m beginning to reconcile myself to the reality that, in the end at least, the curve is all about the process – it’s about what it takes to learn. I’m sure I can speak for the other slubs when I say that post-graduation has been all about the learning curve. We’ve struggled with our property management company. We’ve had to figure out how to pay bills and cook meals. We’ve had good days in the office, but we’ve had just as many days where we left wondering how we were going to accomplish everything we had set out to do. But if St. Olaf has taught us anything, it’s how to love learning.
So I guess today I’ll make a list of the small things I have yet to do, and find satisfaction in checking them off. I won’t be too critical of the time it takes me to make those check marks, but I will be sure to strive to make them. I’ll block off time specifically to check and respond to emails, and then I’ll try to go about my day.
To all of you fighting your way up the learning curve: I’m right there with you. We’re definitely in this together. And if we make a few slides back down towards the bottom of the curve along the way, well…so be it.