Understanding the Plateau

The artist enters her studio at the same time each morning.  Five days a week.  Smelling the paint, she takes her seat at the easel.  She arranges her brushes.

“The routine is important to me.  When I get started, there is a wonderful sense of well-being,” she tells George Leonard in his excellent book The Way of Aikido.  “It’s the routine itself that feeds me.  If I didn’t do it, I’d be betraying the essential me.”

George tells us it is the same for him each time he climbs the stairway to enter the dojo: “I take off my shoes, go into the dressing room, and change into my aikido garb… I love the cool, firm pressure of the mat on the soles of my feet, the ritual bows, the warm-up exercises, and then my heart pounding, my breath rushing as the training increases in speed and power.  I love it all, the sameness, the reliability, the routine…”

Both the artist and George talk about the routine as well as the art and value of the practice. 

Mastery, George tells us is, “the mysterious process where what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice.”

The research is clear.  Deliberate practice is the path to mastery.  Talent is important, but to achieve sustained high-level performance, diligent, high quality practice is far more important.  

And to practice well, we must understand the plateau.  

The mastery curve looks something like this:

Most learning happens on the plateau.  And, plateaus can be long, much longer than the moments when we experience progress – especially when learning difficult skills.  

Certainly, it is good to enjoy and celebrate the feeling that accompanies making progress. But to achieve mastery in any area of our lives, “between spurts of apparent progress, we continue practicing diligently while seeming to make little or no progress,” writes George.

We must learn to enjoy, to love, the plateau.  To take delight in regular practice for its own sake.

In our hurry up, get-it-done-yesterday world, this idea seems radical.  But to learn anything significant, or to make any lasting change in ourselves, we must be willing to spend most of our time on the plateau.  

“Beneath the remarkable efficacy of practice is the intrinsic joy practice brings,” observes George.  “In the routine of strong and beautiful practice, there can be continual renewal and deep satisfaction.”

We tend to think of routine as boring.  But George thinks we have it all wrong:  “Isn’t it the obsessive search for novelty that is the very essence of boredom?”

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Reflection:  Consider something I am good at.  Did my learning reflect the shape of the mastery curve?

Action:  Commit to achieving mastery in a certain area of my life and learn to love the practice and the plateau.

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