The Law of Increasing Returns



Most of us know about “the law of diminishing returns”: after you do the same thing in the same way for a while, the return (financial profit, whole-life improvement) on investment (energy, time, money) gradually decreases. Once the return becomes of equal or lesser value than the investment, you have four options:

  1. Pretend you don’t notice, and keep doing the same thing in the same way.
  2. Increase the level of your investment.
  3. Change your return-related goals.
  4. Admit that the project has outlived its usefulness, and move on.

It’s foolish to choose the first option, but it’s also foolish to choose one of the others without first considering what fits the specific situation. The secret to making the right choice is the law of increasing returns: where the right aspects of investment are increased in the right ways, the return will again become profitable.

Emphasize “the right ways.” Just “trying harder” rarely does it.

What to Increase

One of the best investments you can increase is your “soft,” or relational, skills—empathy, friendliness, cheerful service. When these are “grown” with a genuine desire to do what’s best for others, they pay back your personal “energy bank” with interest. The ultimate supply of community and love never runs dry.

Other things of which you can find an almost infinite amount to invest:

  • Love of learning
  • Appreciation of life
  • Willingness to let others give to you

Matters of Attitude

Just remember, the above investments will only increase your return if you avoid shackling them to self-centered attitudes. If you keep secret accounts of what others “owe” you, or if you harbor an unwillingness to delegate because “no one else does it as well,” you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, bitterness, and exhaustion. You’re also assuming a subtle attitude of superiority toward others, which will only poison your relationships.

(Parents, take special note: if your children are chronically “uncooperative” with your requests, could you be inviting resistance by denying them any say in the best way of doing things? Even preschoolers want to be treated as individuals with a fair level of intelligence—and they have good ideas you’ll miss out on if you’re too busy making all the decisions.)

Another energy drain is “sunk-cost syndrome,” which keeps tossing in more of the same old investment long after returns are irreparably diminished (or after it becomes obvious the project was a bad idea to begin with), because you’ve “gone too far to give up.” Like trying to win back gambling losses, this rarely ends in anything but an empty account. There comes a time to say “enough,” cut any losses, and find new places to invest your remaining resources.

And remember, those resources include what you’ve learned through this experience! No return is negligible if it helps make you a stronger person.