Saturday, August 12, 2006

Plateaus are not failure

Too often we learn the lesson that plateaus are failure. That when we reach a static point in the learning or the use of a skill, that means we have failed. Part of maturity is to realize that plateaus are only plateaus.

When I first learned to type, reaching thirty words a minute was a major benchmark, and then thirty-five (required for a number of jobs). I now seem to type at about a hundred or more words a minute. Does having flattened out mean that I've failed? There are those who decide that they have failed at typing when they started to flatten out at twenty words a minute. At that point they just gave up, quit practicing and still hunt a peck.

This came into sharper relief with the Shangri-la Method or Diet I am using to move my set point. So many people hit their first plateau and then give up. At nine months this morning, my weight in showed sixty-nine pounds lost -- but I'd say about half the time I've spent on the diet, and about half of every month, I spend on plateaus.

I know, in a typical diet (that works because if you change what you eat you will lose weight for 2-3 weeks), the diet works for 2-3 weeks, then there is a plateau and then failure and rebound. It is why they call it yo-yo dieting.

But, I've learned the lesson that a plateau is not failure, and as I've looked at my life, I've realized that there are many plateaus. My walking skill has probably reached a plateau. I'm not getting better at walking -- and I don't care to spend more effort learning how to walk better -- but I don't consider myself a failure at it and do not expect to give it up. Life is filled with examples of that sort.

Yet, so very often, we look at plateaus with the lesson that a plateau is a failure. Much like sometimes "a cigar is only a cigar," a plateau is only a plateau, and sometimes it is a great place to look out and see the world from.

Shangri-la Diet version of this post here.


Anonymous said...

I know that it was tempting for me to drop out of school after I had a semester at the University where I received an A+ in all 13 of my credit hours that semester. I did take off after that semester as I was so burned out. And I am not sure how many A+ grades I received on my return to school through the remaining years. But I would not be the person I am today were I not to have taken those doors. Though I have not used my degree in my occupations for the most part(never had a job where a degree was required), my education is so important to me as abstract thought is one of my strong suits, but I would not have developed it as much were I to have stopped after my A+ semester. As far as work, I don't feel that I have to be challenged there. I am rather spacey and would like an easier job that I could perform with great accuracy. I like to have challenges outside of work such as writing poetry or essays or reaching out in other ways. My sister is the career ladder climber of the family. She is a sweetheart too. And I can live through her achievements quite nicely. :)

Jeremy said...

This is a really important post, Stephen. I'm glad you expanded on it in the SLD forums. (I still prefer that to SLM, but I can see SLM's appeal.) As you say, who knows why we go through plateaux in so many activities. Pianists and other musicians, I believe, report the need to develop a muscular memory, which then takes over. Just like typists. With learned skills, something just gels, and we move forward. Sometimes the plateau is just as far as we are going to go. But in almost every activity, a plateau should certainly not be treated as falure.

Stephen said...

Thank you both for the feedback, I really appreciate it.