Gates' Law: How Progress Compounds

May 24, 2019 • #

“Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

My post from yesterday got me thinking about this piece I read recently on Farnam Street that dovetails with the thoughts on long-term benefit and the compounding nature of good habits.

The idea of “Gates’ Law”1 is that investments for the long-term can bear fruit sooner than you think. Why does this happen so frequently? And what does this have to do with playing the long game?

I don’t mean to imply that all long-term investments (like exercise or reading) compound so quickly that you’ve underestimated the results you can achieve over a shorter time period — you won’t start running and suddenly in a month have lost 60 pounds. But where Gates’ Law is related to compounding effects of good habits is in what the gradual gains enable that you couldn’t do before. In the running example, think about how shedding those first 10 pounds makes your future running that much easier2.

The article mentions the biologist Stuart Kauffman, who calls this concept “The Adjacent Possible”. I love this idea:

Each new innovation adds to the number of achievable possible (future) innovations. It opens up adjacent possibilities which didn’t exist before, because better tools can be used to make even better tools.

Humanity is about expanding the realm of the possible. Discovering fire meant our ancestors could use the heat to soften or harden materials and make better tools. Inventing the wheel meant the ability to move resources around, which meant new possibilities such as the construction of more advanced buildings using materials from other areas. Domesticating animals meant a way to pull wheeled vehicles with less effort, meaning heavier loads, greater distances and more advanced construction. The invention of writing led to new ways of recording, sharing and developing knowledge which could then foster further innovation. The internet continues to give us countless new opportunities for innovation. Anyone with a new idea can access endless free information, find supporters, discuss their ideas and obtain resources. New doors to the adjacent possible open every day as we find different uses for technology.

Not only is there potential for the long-term gains on your positive habits, but you can even unlock adjacent, undiscovered potential along the way.

  1. The quote has been popularized by Bill Gates, but probably apocryphally. 

  2. As my friend Bill Dollins has said regarding losing weight and running: it’s easier if there’s “less you” to lug along for the ride.