Hofstadter’s Law And Why It’s Important In Business

Hofstadters's law

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Morning all,

Tue Feb

Proud moment for me – I’ve been blogging for a month consistently now.

I don’t remember a time where I’ve managed to do this each day and really enjoy the process of writing each morning and not feel encumbered by the process as if it takes something from me.

I definitely feel like it’s enriching my life and return to my days of being a literature student and now realising…

Ah – this is what it feels like it’s all for.

Of course – the same can’t be said for the ‘returns’ I’m receiving.

I just checked on Ahrefs to see what keywords my blog is ranking for – and it’s basically nothing at the moment.

It is a little deflating to consider that this is probably blog number 115 (ish) (Lydia my editor of all of this content fills that in later) – and the ‘audience’ that would come via Google – is still nowhere to be seen.

This year is the year I change that however – as I’m doing keyword research – focussing on link-building around these very blog posts – and I’m writing with all of this in mind and being more consistent than I’ve ever been.

And this got me thinking of the phrase ‘anything worth having ‘always takes longer than you think’ – and wondering where this was derived from.

Well – as it turns out – it probably derives in some ways from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter – who has a ‘quotable’ – which applies to just about any complex endeavour –

Hofstadter’s Law


“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”

This is known as a self-referential adage as Hofstadter is referencing his own quote to underline a general truth about progress.

He was a cognitive scientist who wrote this in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’. The “It” in the wording is deliberately all-inclusive, as Hofstadter believed his law applied to all complex tasks.

I wanted to show deference to something that was first coined in the last 70s – but something that still holds to be true 42 years later.

Deep Blue Vs Gary Kasparaov

Deep Blue Vs Gary Kasparaov

The famous example I think Hofstadter gave was the prediction in the younger days of computer chess that it would only take a decade until a computer program became world champion.

After a decade passed though – this prediction proved to be incorrect and it looked like another decade would be needed.

Turns out it wasn’t until 1997 that Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov.

I wanted to write about this today – because of the media misrepresentation about ‘what success looks like’.

It’s something, in my limited experience I know to be true – that the journey to success is replete with failures, twist and turns and that any bold endeavour requires consistent effort to become fruitful.

And this is often the downfall of many, and most people that happily start a new endeavour only to see it not ‘take off like a rocket’…and then just give up.

The Bathtub Curve

Bathtub curve

To underline this we’ll steal another idea that’s often used in reliability engineering – which is the Bathtub Curve.

It was originally put forward by a British professor Kenneth Boulding in his book The Economics of Peace –

And here’s an example of what it looks like:

Bathtub curve chart

He uses the analogy of having a bathtub that has warm water flowing in, and then it has leaks and/or the drain which causes the water to flow out.

It is this flow of incoming warm water and the corresponding drainage/leaks that determine the stability of the water level.

Engineers use it to describe the initial ‘infant mortality rate’ of new technologies and products which ultimate decrease over time after continual failures – which form part of the process of stabilization.

Flaws in this period – which is in the earlier stages of the lifetime of a product (or in our case business) – often come from manufacturing/engineering flaws as well as incorrect startup approaches.

Once you get through the infant mortality rate – you typically tend to see a decreasing failure rate before you enter the normal life i.e useful life of a product or service where there’s a low “constant failure rate”.

This can begin to become predictable and you can build adaptive and preemptive support for such failures.

Then over time (and some companies/products never reach this stage) – a software or technology begins to become defective – where it reaches end of life ‘wear-out’ and the failure rate begins increasing again.

I’m sure you can already in your mind – see the applications this has within business and life (which we will come to)

I’ll also add a couple more laws to this:

You probably know of:

Murphy’s Law

Murphy law

This is the adage or epigram that you’ll hear as such:

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”.

As it turns out – Edward J Murphy (I didn’t know this until now) was Major in the US Air Force back in the 1940s who specialized in development engineering…which naturally is where this rule originated from.

The rate of defective development was extremely high so I’m not surprised that this is where Murphy’s belief came from.

There is some debate over the rule though – in that some people believe it was a chap named ‘Sod’ who came up with the rule.

This is because another popular expression for this rule is:

[convertful id=”197358″]

‘Sod’s law’

Sod law

You’ll hear this used quite widely I think – more widely than Murphy’s law.

I.e when something goes wrong you don’t expect I’ve heard people say ‘talk about Sod’s law’

Equally, when you face risk and potential failure I’ve also heard the inverse – ‘sod it – let’s do it!’.

The Effect Of All Of These Law’s?

Law effects

Ultimately – it’s the truth that anything worth having will always take longer than you think. Often time, much much longer than anticipated.

And most people have no understanding of this (including me much of the time) – and is a big part of accounting for most not getting past the infant mortality period where you’re met with successive failure after failure.

As a consequence – most of us will give up, especially when you compare what you’ll read about people having rockstar success in <1 year with their business.

If you’re given the opportunity to look under the hood – you’ll discover that years of failure is often behind them. Furthermore, WITHOUT such failure – failure then will soon come – because people lack the experience to maintain their growth as the market changes – they can’t adapt as easily with it.

I got lucky with the first-course launch I ever did and made $100k plus.

I’ve not since repeated that, because I didn’t have the inherent experience so it fell apart.

Pearl Lemon has taken far longer than I thought it would to even reach £60k+ per month.

I am wondering how long it’ll take for me to get to a place where this blog reaches 30,000 visits a month – which is what I would absolutely love.

Here’s another law for you though – that will stand in your favour by and large – if we’re all able to get through the infant mortality period with the bathtub curve where you’re met with failure after failure and next to zero success.

The Lindy Effect

Lindy effect

This law – which comes from an article called ‘Lindy’s Law’ Albert Goldman wrote in 1964 in ‘The New Republic’ in reference to comedic work –

Specifically, the idea that the amount of material comedians have is constant – and as such, it is the frequency of their output that predicts how long their series will last.

And if you confine yourself to guest appearances and specials – you can last decades, whereas if you appear regularly you can quickly get exhausted.

I needed to give this pretext to then reference Benoit Mandelbrot – who defined a different concept using the same name in his 1982 book The Fractal Geometry of Nature

Mandelbrot’s rule I think is much more logical and evidential (but can be used in conjunction with Goldman’s rule) – that simply, the more television appearances a comedian makes – the MORE future appearances they are likely to make.

Zipf’s Law


This has actually been proven by Zipf’s law which refers to the rank-frequency distribution being inversely proportional.

A practical example of this can be taken from linguistics in that in the Brown Corpus of American English text – the word ‘the’ is the most frequently occurring word and accounts for around 7% of all word occurrences, whilst the word ‘of’ accounts for 3.5%, then followed by ‘and’ which is lesser still.

The Intuitive Truth Of All Of These Law’s

Intuitive truth

It’s fascinating to string all of these law’s together and to intuitively see their truth within business.

Here’s – more simply put – some of the outcomes of this thinking:

  • Success – as demonstrated by Hofstadter’s law – will always take longer than you think
  • Chances are, as demonstrated by the Bathtub Curve – that most businesses don’t get past the infant mortality period where success comes after constant failure
  • Murphy or Sod’s law predicts that if something can go wrong – it will go wrong – and most of us aren’t prepared for this – whether psychologically, physically or otherwise
  • If you ARE able to survive the infant mortality period – the Lindy effect underlines ultimately that the longer you’re ‘in the game’ the more adaptable and resilient you will become – and the longer you’re likely to survive
  • Zipf’s law also demonstrates that should you get to dominate anything – your success will translate into dominance – and much of the market could be reliant upon you. Think about the industries that Amazon, AirBnb, Google and Apple support as just a couple of examples

Final Thoughts

Final thoughts

Well, I set out to write around this idea that my success is building my blog will take longer than I think – and I’m blown away by the clarity that Googling has given me.

So much of this in my mind makes sense when thinking upon how success works, and the challenges that come with it in the first few years of your business life – where you can often time be met with ultimately ZERO success.

It’s actually reassuring for me when looking at this.

I think I’ve decided upon a new approach.

The approach is – is that upon committing to something I care about – I want to give it 18 months of intense work before making a decision upon whether I’ll make another 5-year commitment to it.

Please notice I mention ‘something I care about’. If I DON’T care about it then I’ll take much simpler ‘rational’ decisions in shorter spans and decide whether to ‘keep/kill’ things.

Right now, my blog is in the infant mortality stage of it’s growth..and it seems like I’ve got to keep failing…to keep growing.

Today’s effort:

And today’s finish time:


90 minutes – not bad.

Until next time 🙂