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Learning to Love the Plateau

All of us who have trained for any significant length of time have experienced the feeling of losing momentum or stalling out. We feel that we are just not making any progress and may even come to believe that we have reached the limit of our skill development. If our aspiration is to reach a level of mastery, in whatever we have chosen to pursue, there are several truths we must come to understand about the proverbial “plateau.”

First, accept the fact that the plateau is a natural and necessary part of the path. No one’s path to mastery has ever been a constant and steady rise. If we were to graph out the path of skill development it would always include several components. Initially there is a steep rise followed by a drop, a dip, or “backsliding.” This is typically followed by a more moderate rise, which then settles in to a plateau. As the graph moves forward the pattern is repeated; rise, decline, rise, and plateau. As time goes on and the practitioner matures and becomes more seasoned, the rises become less elevated and the plateaus become longer. For someone in a hurry, this can be a grim prospect indeed.

In actual fact this so-called plateau is the place where mastery is actually being forged. Unfortunately it is also the place where many students get derailed and give up. In truth, the plateau experience presents us with a hard-earned opportunity to grow out of our socialized desire for a never-ending stream of constant entertainment, higher highs, ever newer and more exciting “stuff.” In a word, we may cultivate the critical skill of perseverance. Failing this opportunity carries with it the risk of becoming a collector of stuff and leaving behind forever the road to mastery.

The secret here is to come to the realization that the perception of the plateau being flat is an illusion. As we persevere and continue having training experiences, particularly if we are being mindful, there is really a slight upward trajectory all along this apparent plateau. As we continue there is eventually some event in which growth in skill becomes clear. This is represented by a rise or spike on the graph. What follows is the predictable backslide, rebound, and the next plateau….and so it continues…if we persevere.

By dispelling these myths about the plateau experience we can change our negative perceptions, and resulting emotions, and actually learn to embrace and enjoy the inevitable experience of camping out on the plateau for a while. Take your time. Enjoy the scenery. Make some discoveries. Carry on.

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