An Ode to Incremental Growth

Published on 2022-05-17 by Spencer Peters

Good writing is bad writing that's been rewritten. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Over time, flowing water carves the hardest rock.

Why is "incremental" a pejorative? It's used to mean "uninspiring" or "derivative". Perhaps this is small-mindedness. Any given step of an epic journey is typically uninspiring, unless you take a big-picture view. But the cynicism captures something real, because it is hard to distinguish the epic journey from meaningless meandering. The incremental "growth" of a dead academic field is truly uninspiring. The growth is not real. There is no direction.

In contrast, real incremental growth is not and cannot be myopic. This is why Convict Conditioning insists that you master the hardest steps of each exercise, which seem almost impossible to reach even for a healthy, fit 26-year-old like me. You have to flip the script and accept little progress in the short term, while dreaming of huge progress in the long term. Bill Gates said, "Most people overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years."

Big aspirations exert a powerful magnetizing effect. Your efforts must line up, instead of dissipating as sound and fury, and signifying nothing. Bruce Lee said, "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." One powerful approach is to line up your efforts behind one epic goal (a computer on every desk, winning the Tai Chi World Championships, and so on). But even if you just want to make yourself stronger, you can set yourself up for incremental growth. This is reading textbooks over paging in Wikipedia articles. This is using Emacs for 90% of your workflow, rather than using specific tools for specific jobs.

At the next level of sophistication, this becomes a philosophy of life. Each thing you are doing must be viewed as learning, that's potentially applicable to a larger context. Daily frustrations become training in mental resilience. Understanding the balance of "macro" and "micro" in real-time strategy games inspires skillful management of a portfolio of projects and aspirations. Advancing on multiple fronts is a dangerous scattering of efforts, so care must be taken to synchronize learning between them.

The dichotomy between incremental and disruptive is partially false and partially true. It is false in the sense that incremental growth is a surefire catalyst of disruptive insights. It is true in the sense that many disruptive insights don't naturally arise from incremental growth. Instead, they arise from end-goal-oriented hunting for untapped sources of energy in the environment. For example, looking for a place where it has just become legal to develop additional houses on existing lots. But fortune favors the prepared mind. I believe that end-goal-oriented hunting is worth doing, in parallel with (and guiding) incremental growth in abilities. The energy that you harvest from the environment this way also compounds.

Incremental growth requires diligence and long-term thinking. But the stakes here are exponential. Boring, static mediocrity versus world-crushing momentum. See you 10 years from now...

Hat tip to JW

Josh Waitzkin's "Art of Learning" is the starting point of this essay. His conviction that incremental growth is the most stable principle in the world inspired the title. Josh's perspective on incremental growth comes from riding it to the Junior World Championship in chess, and winning both categories of the World Championship in Tai Chi Push Hands. If that sounds incredibly awesome, go read his book. It is.