Standard career advice for high-achievers early in their careers is to seek out jobs with “steep learning curves”. In other words, find a job where you’ll be able to learn a lot, quickly.
I know when I was in college looking for my first job, the possible slopes of learning curves loomed large in my mind. I wanted a job where the steeper the line the better. To me, the steepness of my curve was a function of how quickly I could take on more responsibility. So I looked for jobs that promised fast advancement, ultimately landing at a strategy consulting firm that was itself a startup.
Looking back, I realize now that the two-dimensionality of a learning curve conflated two things: how quickly I could learn, and how quickly a job could teach.
More often than not, how quickly a job can teach is what slows down a person’s learning curve, not the other way around. I think of this as the “learning cycle” of a job.
At a fast growing startup, your learning cycle is incredibly fast. For example, at Pinterest, particularly early on, if I had a hypothesis I wanted to test, I could ship an experiment fast, and because we already had an incredibly engaged user base, learn from the results within a week or two. Basically, my learning cycle was as fast as you could ask for, which meant I was able to cram an incredible amount of learning into a very short period of time.
On the other hand, I’d often interview product manager candidates who worked at big companies like Microsoft. I’d always be amazed at how little product management they actually got to do over their many years of experience. It’d take them years (literally!) to ship a feature, despite many promotions along the way.
It’s counter-intuitive, but a brand new startup might actually have a slower learning cycle than a startup that is already a “rocketship”. This is because there is a lot of wandering in the desert before you find product market fit.
So if you’re thinking of changing jobs, or taking your first, my advice: find a place with a fast learning cycle, and a steep learning curve.