If you are feeling stuck in your learning journey, you are not alone. As frustrating as it may be, hitting a plateau is an unavoidable part of the learning process. We imagine and hope for growth to be a straight line, upwards to the right. But that’s never how it plays out in reality. Instead, the learning journey is made up of numerous plateaus punctuated by sudden leap forward in improvement.
So why do we find plateaus intolerable? Where does the expectation of rapid growth come from?
Well, we live in a world surrounded by sources of instant gratification. Movies show transformations of average people into super heroes within a few quick montages. A society driven by rampant consumerism has trained us to expect instant results from any action. Get rich quickly, lose that weight quickly, pop that pill for fast relief, launch that product for that quick quarterly win. George Leonard, author of the book Mastery, calls this an addiction to climaxes. With every need being met instantly, we want more and more, faster and faster, and are unwilling to slow down. Climaxes piled on top of more climaxes, lulls us into a rhythm. A rhythm that, as you can see, lacks any plateaus.
The sense of gratification and exhilaration that one feels from this addiction is a temporary illusion. And the illusion works quite well, until it doesn’t. The chain of climaxes is inevitably interrupted by events outside our control, such as a pandemic. That’s when we find ourselves in exactly the same place as before, with nothing changed and no growth. But we don’t have to settle for a life of illusion. There is a better way. One that involves embracing deeper experiences, full of growth, and of course, plateaus.
To understand the importance of the plateau, we need to go back to the core element in the learning process – the habit of consistent practice. Practice is what build skills and knowhow. And turns out that most of the time spent in practice, is actually spent in a plateau. Most of us are intuitively aware that to grow, we must love to practice. In fact the path to true mastery involves enjoying practice for the sake of practice itself. It is the time spent practicing during the long stretches of a plateau, where we feel no progress, that sow the seeds for the eventual spurt of growth.
Resisting the plateau is futile. Worst still, resistance leads to more frustration and dissatisfaction which can outright stall progress. Instead, we must learn to love practice and love the journey.
To grow, we have to embrace the plateau.
Goals and contingencies, as I’ve said, are important. But they exist in the future and the past, beyond the pale of the sensory realm. Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. To love the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.-George Leonard, Mastery