Loving the plateau

While learning a new skill, in the first few weeks there is rapid improvement with effort invested. We improve every hour, every day at a rate which we can easily perceive. This keeps us motivated.

But after a few weeks, we reach a stage where incremental improvement seems no longer as easy. This is the point where most people give up and do not push further. Some people call this the plateau. Seth Godin calls it the dip. Regardless of its name, it separates the dilettantes from the masters.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” – Zen koan

The plateau can be discouraging. After months of practice, it can seem as if we are stagnant. On bad days, it can even seem like moving backwards. We maybe reasonably good at playing the guitar or at swimming. But even hours of practice does not help us break out of our mediocrity.

This feeling of discouragement and exasperation arises due to a focus on the result – on the end product. The key is to attend to the process instead. What are the nuances of a song you play on the guitar? Where are the space between the notes? Can you play it at twice the original tempo? Or at half the tempo? Can you divide your swimming strokes into its elements and learn to perfect each element – how long your arm extends, how symmetric your stroke is on both sides, how high your head breaches the water’s surface as you breathe.

As Terry Laughlin, the world-class swim coach says, when we keep at something and show up regularly, improvement happens at the cellular level.  After a certain period, this improvement consolidates and surfaces to our conscious knowledge, appearing as a leap of capability.

After hours of playing chess games, certain positions on the board seem to feel right. After hours of swimming, one day, we are able to swim a kilometer without much effort. But these leaps happen to those who embrace the process, love the plateau and keep their faith.

It happens to those who chop wood and carry water everyday.

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