Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics podcast episode pointed out that using the term “steep learning curve” to describe something that is difficult to master is incorrect. I’ve been guilty of this and now notice I’m not the only one. Within a day or so, I heard another person on a different podcast use the term incorrectly.
From the transcript:
Stephen Dubner is interviewing Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University.
DUBNER: And the last one weâ€™ll do right now is â€œsteep learning curve.â€
LILIENFELD: A lot of people will say, â€œOh, I started on a new job where I was having to do something new. And this job has a really steep learning curve.â€ In fact theyâ€™re getting it backward. A steep learning curve is easy. Because a steep learning curve means â€”
DUBNER: You learn a lot in a hurry, right?
LILIENFELD: Not slowly.
DUBNER: When I read that in your paper I thought, â€œOh my goodness, thatâ€™s really interesting that weâ€™ve all got it backwards.â€ But then I quickly rationalized and said, â€œWell, I guess what I always assumed was that the steepness was on the axis referring to difficulty somehow,â€ right? And that if a task is particularly difficult, then thatâ€™s the steepness, and thatâ€™s the curve Iâ€™m on. So really, when we encounter something thatâ€™s really difficult, and weâ€™re having a hard time mastering it, we should say weâ€™re on a very shallow â€”
LILIENFELD: A very shallow learning curve, thatâ€™s right. I think when people say, â€œThis task has a steep learning curve,â€ what they mean is, â€œMan, I feel like Iâ€™m going up like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill and going up a very steep mountain!â€ But in fact if something has a steep learning curve, that means that itâ€™s acquired very quickly.
Listen to the episode here.