Originally published on May 5, 2021
Just What Is the Hype Cycle Anyway?
As you’ve probably come to learn via my content over the years, I’m a bit of a computer nerd. This notion is prevalent throughout my books, blogs, and podcasts; they’re filled with tech-based stories and insights. The same applies to this post.
Today I want to discuss a popular, tech-related chart developed by Gartner, one of the largest research and advisory firms in the US. That chart is called the hype cycle (seen in the image above), and its purpose is to provide a visual framework for how most new products and services move toward mass adoption.
The reason I want to look at this graph is that I think it overlaps with many of the new adventures we embark on in our lives as well as our mental health while on such pursuits.
If we look at the chart itself, we see that its x-axis denotes the amount of time a company, product, or idea has been in existence, while the y-axis marks its visibility or perceived success in the marketplace. Moreover, when we break the graph into various pieces, we see it comprises five critical events in said company, product, or idea’s lifecycle.
The first of those events is what’s known as a trigger. It’s what denotes the beginning of our chart, at its origin.
These often take the form of companies starting to build new products, getting them featured on mainstream media outlets, or receiving positive feedback about them from beta users and focus groups. These triggers are inherently exciting and public-facing, which means, unsurprisingly, we see our graph shoot up the y-axis relatively quickly.
This rapid ascent leads such folks to the second key event in the cycle — the peak of inflated expectations. This moment is when the buzz surrounding a product or company reaches a temporary or all-time high.
At this point, investors are fighting one another to write checks, consumers are trying to one-up each other on product waitlists, and everyone and their grandmother is talking about the potential of such organizations and offerings. Think Facebook in 2010, Instagram in 2011, or Snapchat in 2012.
While such coverage is obviously pretty sweet, it creates one big issue. It allows companies to reap many of the perceived rewards without doing all that much just yet. The most well-endowed of these organizations pop bottles, dominate headlines, and rake in early investments while partying as if they’ve already won the title. The only problem is, they’ve barely started on the long and difficult process of building their companies in earnest.
Shortly after the parties conclude, this uncomfortable reality begins to settle in. Organizations launch their products to lukewarm reviews or wildly miss earnings targets, while competitors enter the space and threaten obsolescence. Whatever the specific reason, this understanding of the discrepancy between expectations and reality marks the third pivotal moment on our graph — the trough of disillusionment.
This trough is precisely what it sounds like. It’s the dark, turbulent part of the journey. It’s also where many companies give up and products fizzle out. That’s because building a company or offering of real and sustained value is quite challenging.
Sure, getting an initial 1,000 people excited about an idea is great, but success in any industry requires so much more than that. It necessitates acquiring and retaining tens of thousands of customers, tweaking a product or service endlessly, and fighting off all sorts of internal and external threats.
This third milestone marks a major inflection point of the journey. It’s where founders either succumb to their disillusionment and give up altogether or embrace the long and challenging quest of creating real, productive businesses. Those that stick it out advance to the fourth significant event on our chart — the slope of enlightenment.
That slope represents the part of the journey where companies and product teams slowly but surely start to pull themselves out of the pit of despair and move forward once again. It’s the interval where they see that, even if they won’t become $10 trillion entities, with enough effort, they can carve out legitimate cashflows for themselves and their investors.
It’s during this span that teams and leaders make tweaks to their products and business models, uncover critical insights, and acquire loads of new customers. After accumulating enough of these wins over a long enough period, such companies and products settle into efficient rhythms and niches of their own.
This settling marks the fifth and final point on our chart — the plateau of productivity. Though plateaus are usually synonymous with stunted growth, this one merely indicates that expectations have normalized. A company reaching this milestone has achieved mainstream adoption and cemented itself as a long-term player in its space. This is the ultimate goal for young companies and something worthy of a real, championship-like celebration.
Connecting the Hype Cycle to Our Own Lives
So, that’s all well and good. But what does all that info about product launches have to do with our lives, or anything mental-health-related, for that matter? Great question.
The hype cycle doesn’t just apply to fledgling companies and products — it also pertains to many of the new, exciting adventures we embark on in our lives and the struggles we encounter during them. In other words, if we plotted our excitement and perceived success with such ventures over time, we’d get a chart that looks a lot like the one we’ve been discussing thus far.
To keep things out of the abstract, let’s assume the journey we’re embarking on is that of graduating from our dream college. Though there are many other situations to which we could apply this line of thinking, such as starting a new, exciting job or raising children, we’ll focus on this academic example for simplicity’s sake.
Where our journey begins, then, is on the day we receive our acceptance letter. This is our trigger. It’s also an exhilarating day, as it represents and encapsulates all the hard work we’ve completed in the past few years. The kind that ultimately helped get us into our desired school in the first place.
These triggers often lead to euphoria, and with good reason. We’ve achieved something important to us and unlocked new statuses in our lives. Such achievements are highly worthy of celebration. However, they’re also worthy of a bit of caution. If we party and dream too hard, we may unknowingly shoot ourselves back up to the peak of inflated expectations.
More often than not, that’s what we tend to do anyway. Our excitement takes over, leading us to dream about our futures and declare various things like, “These will be the best four years of my life,” or “I’m going to live it up like no tomorrow because, after I graduate and enter the real world, it’s all over!”
Sure, sometimes we aren’t literal with everything we say in these euphoric states. But still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful. Otherwise, we may set ourselves up for disappointment.
This is because, in reality, any new adventure in life is full of pros and cons — positive and negative things. Yes, some of our journeys have far fewer of those cons than others, but still, the fact remains — nothing’s perfect. When we look forward and assume it’ll simply be blue skies and smooth sailing ahead, we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves. And we all know where those lead us.
That’s right — to the trough of disillusionment. This is where the mental health side of things comes in. When we set off in pursuit of our biggest goals but later find that our realities aren’t as flawless as we thought they’d be, we often fall into states of sadness and depression.
In these states, we sometimes ask ourselves dark and daunting questions such as, “Is this journey even worth pursuing anymore?” or “Is anything ever as good as it seems?” As you can imagine, these questions are harmful to our well-being. Not only do they bring us pain, but they also lead us to a fork in the road.
At that fork, we have to decide if we’re going to stay on our current path and wade through our disillusionment or instead search for a new trigger to shoot us back to another quick high.
The first option is the more difficult one. It requires looking past the depression or despair we may be experiencing, taking stock of our lives, and determining how we’re going to keep moving toward our goal. In our college example, it means figuring out how to graduate with pride and dignity.
That figuring out could mean buckling down on our studies, changing majors, or signing up for some extracurriculars. The extent to which we do such a thing determines the degree to which our slope of enlightenment rises before finally leveling off toward productivity and carrying us to our commencement ceremonies.
Our other option, however, is to start on another path altogether. This is usually the more alluring choice. It means abandoning our dream school and seeking another trigger — one that will send us up to the peak of inflated expectations once more. Such a trigger could take the form of us transferring to a different school or dropping out of college in pursuit of something else entirely.
The reason I say this second option is alluring (as well as a bit dangerous) is that it can sometimes be a cheap out. It gets us back to a high without first doing the most difficult and necessary work on our journeys — figuring out who we are and what we want out of our experiences. Such learnings are precisely what we need before we can pivot and persist successfully. Avoiding that work, as you can likely imagine, doesn’t permanently keep us from the trough of disillusionment — it merely delays our return to it.
Now, of course, that’s not to say we should always just blindly force ourselves through pain and depression. Sometimes we guess wrong and later realize the journey we’ve started isn’t the one we really wanted for ourselves. In such cases, assuming it doesn’t cause us or our families undue stress, it can make plenty of sense to seek a new quest or cycle to pursue.
But that doesn’t change the fact that our new cycle will come with the same potential pitfalls as our last one. It’s up to us to realize and account for that. It’s also up to us to prepare for the difficult work we must do as we drag ourselves out of our troughs and toward the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.
One of the best ways we can do this is by relishing future triggers without setting any unrealistic expectations regarding the journeys associated with them. This is such a critical point to make since skipping such expectations lowers the distance between our peaks and troughs and mitigates the despair or depression we may feel as we move from the former to the latter.
Better yet, it may even remove those troughs altogether, allowing us to inch steadily and methodically toward our productivity plateaus.
Thus, no matter what journeys we embark on in life — graduating from college, training for a marathon, or getting married — we should keep in mind the hype cycle. We should remember that, as alluring as runaway expectations can be at the beginning of our quests, they can also be the things that sink us later on — when the real work starts.
Equipped with this knowledge, we now realize the importance of enjoying our triggers while also keeping our expectations in check. This approach not only makes us more likely to do the work necessary for arriving at our proverbial graduation ceremonies, but it also helps us be as efficient and practical as possible in pursuit of those outcomes.
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**Image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2021