Love the Plateau

“Learning to Love the Plateau” – Where Mastery Happens

A few competencies are relatively easy to master, but most are not.  Most of the important ones are not easy to master.  The key is understanding the steps in the process of mastering a competency, particularly the unavoidable “plateaus”, when you just seem stuck.  These plateaus are a natural part of life.  No one’s path to mastery has ever been a constant steady upward path.

The rhythm of mastery includes times when our competency seems to be developing rapidly and it gets exciting as we make leaps.  The practice obviously pays off.  The natural rhythm of mastery also includes times when improvement just doesn’t seem to be happening – even when we practice as hard as ever. 

That’s the “plateau” – where progress flattens out – and that’s where it is very easy to get discouraged, cut back on the practice and maybe even give up.

It is on those plateaus where we basically must trust in the process and in our practice and keep going even without the encouragement that obvious improvement provides.  If we do, we almost always come to the next period of leaps in competency – and probably won’t be able to see it coming.  It’s called “learning to love the plateau.”

The Rhythm of Mastery
The normal steps in mastery – getting through the mastery curve are outlined below.

  1. As we begin the process of mastery, we often experience a spurt of increased ability that feels good and encourages more effort.
  2. At some point following that initial spurt we hit a plateau where our ability doesn’t seem to improve despite continued, or even increased, effort.  It feels like we stalled or lost our momentum.
  3. As that competence plateau extends despite efforts, it becomes very easy to get discouraged and lose heart.  However, keep in mind that plateaus are not completely flat.  There is some upward slant to them even if slight – progress is being made.
  4. Losing heart leaves us vulnerable to giving up or investing less effort – we can get stuck or drop out.
  5. If we persevere and focus on “right practice” vs. immediate outcomes, we eventually experience the next spurt in increased competence
  6. It is usually impossible to see the spurt coming, which is one reason the mastery process is so tough and why perseverance and “right practice” is so important.
  7. The pattern repeats.  Hopefully, we learn from early plateaus and aren’t discouraged, so that persevering becomes a way of life and we get better and better at mastering the competencies we need.
  8. One “heads-up.”  As we begin to master a competency the spurts can be less dramatic and the plateaus can get longer.  The more we master a competency, the more this may prove to be true.  Again, don’t be discouraged.  It’s just the way it works.

Relying on “Right Practice”

Remember that this is a journey and journeys happen over time – and they happen because we keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Mastering competencies also happens over time and with practice.  Putting one foot in front of the other and not giving up. 

Competency doesn’t develop without practice, so try to see practice as a valuable activity that gets you what you want – not just something that you have to do. 

It is the focus on what is called “right practice” that gets us across the plateaus and on to the next obvious spurt in competency.

“We fail to realize that mastery is not about perfection. It’s about a process, a journey. The master is the one who stays on the path day after day, year after year. The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives.”


"History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats."


A Note on Homework – It’s a Form of “Right Practice

Homework is Practice.  Make it work for you.
Homework has a bad reputation.  Everyone makes fun of homework.  Most of the quotes you find on homework make fun of it.  This is a major problem because it undermines one of your best opportunities to build competence – any competence.

Too much homework is bad.  Too little homework is bad.  Otherwise homework is good.  Some teachers give poor homework assignments, but homework is basically practice – and you can’t build competency without practice.

If You Make Homework Work for You, the Benefits are Amazing
Homework is practice in attention and focus, in time management, in exploration, in memorization, in analysis, in expressing yourself, in dealing with frustration, in discipline.  It’s not just about completing an assignment.

If you practice homework with intent and make it work for you – it gets easier and you get more and more out of it.

There is Plenty of Homework in Adult Life
It isn’t called homework, but there is a lot of preparation and “right practice” required to raise a family, manage a home, do well in jobs, etc.  If you make homework work for you in school, that experience and competence will work for you as an adult. 

Tomorrow’s victory is today’s practice.


DANGER! Losing Heart on the Plateaus

There are always times on the heroic journey when discouragement, sometimes even hopelessness, intrudes and that can sidetrack or end a journey if we aren’t ready. 

Setbacks, Disappointments and Failures Happen. 

They are not a sign that you are off the path or not on the way to mastery and success.  The feelings they can generate – frustration, anger, feeling depressed, discouraged or inadequate – can be difficult, but they do not need to last.  You can acknowledge them and accept them as part of the journey, let them go, and continue on your journey.  Then your energy can go back into “right practice” and learning from the experience.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.


Learning from the Setbacks
A great deal of our most important learnings comes not from success, but from dealing with the setbacks we encounter.  We also learn from successes, but often overlook the learning and motivation that can result from setbacks.  You can become wiser and more resilient and you can get better at mastering your emotions vs. letting them master you.  Setbacks and failures can be very painful and frustrating, but they also can offer opportunities for getting stronger, smarter and more resilient.

Failures to heroic minds are the stepping stones to success.

Thomas Chandler

Managing the Experience
The key is to realize that mastery has a rhythm to it and focus on:

  1. “Learning to love the plateau” and trust your practice
  2. Persevering and dealing with the inevitable setbacks and failures
  3. Developing new habits that support your competencies – and get rid of a couple of old habits

Focus on Your Resilience/Perseverance
The ability to “hold the course” is a critical success factor on the journey in general and it certainly is critical in the process of mastery. 

Life comes with relationship problems, family problems, health problems, school and work problems.  That’s just the way it works, and resilience helps us “bounce back” and persevere – hopefully increasingly strong, wise and resilient.

Resilience – the ability to “bounce back – is not a characteristic that people are simply born with – or without.  It involves thoughts and behaviors that can be learned and developed, and it grows through experience.  There is more on resilience in the What to Do Chapter.

Resilience is very different than being numb. Resilience means you experience, you feel, you fail, you hurt. You fall. But, you keep going.