June 16, 2018

A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept” - John Ousterhout

John Ousterhout is a Computer Science professor at Stanford.

I didn’t go to Stanford.

I have never met Professor Ousterhout.

But I love his quote. It highlights the importance of persistence.

Imagine a basic graph with an x-axis and a y-axis. The y-axis represents how much you know. The x-axis represents time.

If you were to plot your own knowledge over time on the graph, it becomes obvious that it doesn’t matter where you start. What matters is how much you learn - how much slope” you have.

And if you’re learning more, eventually you’ll pass everybody who is flatlining.

Thus, this blog is dedicated to the idea of keeping your first derivative of knowledge positive.

Here’s an excerpt from Ousterhout’s original lecture transcript:

At a mathematical level this is an obvious truism. You know if you have two lines — the red line and the blue line — and the red line has a lower Y-intercept but a greater slope, then eventually, the red line will cross the blue line.


Here’s an example. I often hear conversations the first week of class where somebody will be bemoaning, Oh so-and-so knows blah-blah-blah, how am I ever going to catch up to them?”

Well, if you’re one of the people who knows blah-blah-blah, it’s bad news for you, because honestly, everyone is going to catch up really quickly. Before you know it, that advantage is going to be gone, and if you aren’t learning, too, you’re going to be behind.


The key thing here is that slow and steady is great. You don’t have to do anything heroic. You know the difference in slopes doesn’t have to be that great if you just think about learning a little bit more and getting a little bit better every day.

Next post