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For reasons I can’t entirely recall now, my freshman year of high school began on Friday, September 1, 1978–the day before the Labor Day weekend, which is traditionally regarded as the last official weekend of summer. I will never forget the very first lesson of my first class–Social Studies I. It began promptly at 8:05 AM and was taught by Louie Senta. He was a gruff old man with a shock of silver hair and a gravelly voice. If I didn’t know better I would have thought he was delivered straight from central casting to play the role of an intimidating disciplinarian–a role, I might add, that he played with a persuasive amount of gusto.
After the bell rang signaling the start of class, Senta rested his steely blue eyes upon his new wide-eyed charges for what seemed like an eternity. He then posed this peculiar question: “If you had a choice between taking $100,000 a day for this entire month or accepting a single penny today and having the penny double every day for the remainder of the month, which would you select?”
The class was silent, but I remember thinking, “What a stupid question.” Unbowed by the sea of incredulous, pimple-spotted faces staring back at him, Senta asked, “How many of you would choose $100,000 a day?” His face showed no emotion as he paused a moment to let us to ponder our answer.
At the time my only concern was whether the month of September had thirty or thirty-one days and, therefore, whether I would be entitled to the princely sum of $3 million or $3.1 million.
Senta called for a showing of hands. Without bothering to look around the room to seek the assurance of my peers, I shot my hand up. Only afterward did I glance around the room and note with mild satisfaction that my new classmates were just as bright as me.
To confirm what was already obvious, Senta then asked if anyone would choose the second option. No one raised their hand. Then, in a refrain that was to become all too familiar for the next four years of our lives, he ordered us, “Do the math. See how much richer you are because of your wisdom.”
Being good with numbers, I quickly doubled the penny ten times and calculated the sum to be $5.12. I continued on for another ten doublings. The figure after the twentieth iteration, I noted with a serene sense of satisfaction, was a scanty $5,242.88. Again, I pressed on in confidence. It was only after the twenty-eighth step–when the figure reached $1,342,177.28–that a sinking feeling came over me and I realized the error of my ways. After the thirtieth and final doubling I calculated I would have been entitled to $5,368,709.12–or almost $2.4 million more than if I had taken the “obvious” choice.
In retrospect I suspect that the purpose of Mr. Senta’s little exercise was twofold. For starters, the quiz was doubtlessly his way of humbling a bunch of cocky fourteen-year-old know-it-alls and demonstrating to us, in no uncertain terms, that we still had much to learn. In a larger sense, though, I believe he was trying to teach us a more profound philosophical lesson: Things that might at first appear to be obvious are not always so. While he didn’t say it at the time, the implicit message was that it was important to understand the underlying forces that are at work in any given situation. Or, as I say in my new book of the same name, he encouraged us to ”jump the curve.”
I tell this little story because just as my classmates and I didn’t appreciate the power of exponential growth with regard to the penny, so many people these days also underestimate the power of exponential growth in other fields. Today there are no fewer than nine technological forces that have been and are continuing to grow at near exponential rates, and unless people begin to come to terms with the momentous changes that are afoot and learn to “jump the curve,” they are going to make some costly mistakes–mistakes that will make my hypothetical loss of $2.4 million look like child’s play. The nine technological trends undergoing exponential advancement are computers/semiconductors, data storage, Internet bandwidth, the sequencing of the human genome, brain scanning, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, and the advancement of knowledge itself.
Jump the Curve is not, however, a website or blog about technology–although it will document and explore how many of these technological trends will impact the world of commerce. Rather it is about change and it will seek to continually lay out the case for why leaders must welcome change. More importantly, it will provide a number of tangible steps that will help people and organizations embrace radical change in order to tap into the amazing possibilities that these new and profound transformations will create.
Interested in reading some exponentially-related posts? Check out these past musings by Jack Uldrich:
The Power of Zenzizenzizenzic
57 Years is Now Just 41 Days
The Accelerating Pace of Disruption
Don’t Incrementalize Yourself Into the Future
Dangerous Curves Ahead
Pong and the Future of the President’s Brain
Do You Believe in the Tooth Fairy?
Einstein, Intel and All the Rice in China
Jack Uldrich is a writer, futurist, public speaker and host of jumpthecurve.net. He is the author of seven books, including Jump the Curve and The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business. He is also a frequent speaker on future technology and future trends, nanotechnology, robotics, RFID, innovation, change management and executive leadership to a variety of businesses, industries and non-profit organizations and trade associations.