When we begin to learn a new skill there is a lot of excitement.  The subject fascinates or calls to us in some way and perhaps we were inspired by seeing its mastery in action.  So we begin to read books, watch YouTube videos, take classes, perhaps purchase specialized tools and outfits needed for the skill, and seem to be making great progress.  Everything is so new and exciting.

But at some point the momentum you had begins to wane, and progress seems to stop, or worse, you feel you are starting to slip backwards. The excitement you had from the novelty of it all is no longer enough to sustain you and you begin to doubt whether this was the right path for you.  Perhaps the reality of the scope of just how much work is ahead becomes clear, or you hear subtle voices begin to sabotage your passion…  Maybe you are too short, your hands too wide, your body out of shape, or your mind not sharp enough.  Maybe you just lack talent, or this is just not “your thing.” These are just some of the ways you may begin to talk yourself out of this quagmire.   It seems so easy when we see a master at work, but now it seems every little step hides a massive amount of work.  This loss of passion easily leads to less motivation to practice, which means slower progress.

It’s at this point that some will walk way and move on to the next exciting thing, letting those subversive voices win. But some stick with it, falling back on their practice the best they can, and they are eventually rewarded by a discovery – that plateau they had been on has an end, and progress returns, along with the motivation to forge ahead.

But what happened?

We tend to think of learning as a constant curve upward.  It seems logical that the more we practice, the better we get.  But in reality that progress is much more cyclical.  There are periods of advancement followed by plateaus that seem to drag on. Once we realize this pattern those voices in out heads telling us to give up become less credible.

The Path of Mastery

Understanding and learning to work within the progress-plateau cycle is the key to walking a path of mastery, and can be applied to many aspects of our life.

Just as we all have our own unique way of responding to difficulties, each of us must find our own way of pushing though the inevitable plateaus, and value them for the important role they play in our Work.

The fundamental difference between those who experience success and those who fail is the ability to persist through the difficult times when we most want to give up.

Plateaus Serve a Function

It’s easy to love the learning peaks and dread the plateaus.  Where is the fun of hitting that wall and lingering in what seems a limbo of progress?

Well the secret is, during the plateau you are making progress… just not the type you are thinking about.  Consider the idea of muscle memory.  This is when your body “remembers” something so that it comes naturally without thought.  for example, when I first started to learn guitar, it was absolutely impossible for me to both maintain a strumming pattern AND change chords. Every time I would try to move my fingers to the next set of strings to make a chord I would have to stop strumming.   Try as I may, I could not do two different complex things at the same time.  Quite literally, I was not wired for it.  It takes time for that rewiring (known as neuroplasticity ) to take place, and when it does it can seem like out of nowhere.  One day when I began my practice as usual,  I just could change chords while I was strumming. I was actually in shock when it happened and once that connection was made I never had to think about it again.  In fact looking back it seemed weird that that could ever have been a problem!  I saw the same with reading hiragana with Japanese.  When I started I read like a child, and struggled with every character.  I would have to say a word twice to know what it was since the first time all my energy was in sounding out each character.  Now it comes so naturally that I actually have a hard time reading Japanese written using roman letters, and when I take notes in Japanese it is always in hiragana, without thought.  (Writing thank you in Japanese as arigato looks weird to me but ありがとう makes perfect sense.)

It is during plateaus that we rely the most heavily on practice.  It is through repetition that the brain rewires itself, so during a plateau when the requiring is happening, deliberate, conscious practice helps to drive things in deep. Think of the plateau as the hardening phase where long term memory processes all you had been learning during the last peek.  Learning to surrender to this process is a key to longer term success.

Additionally consider the character building aspects of pushing through the difficult and challenging periods of plateaus.  It becomes a time on which to lean on our practice, and work through discomfort. This mindset will be valuable in all aspects of our life.

It is during the plateau that we are actually moving closer to Mastery.

It’s About the Journey

I know it’s cliché, but there is something to take away from the expression “it is not about the destination – it’s about the journey.”

We want instant gratification, but the hard reality is, mastery takes years, and it simply cannot be rushed.  While in reality the time will vary with the person and their practice habits, you will usually hear estimates like 3-5 years for impressive competence, and 7-10 years or 10,000 hours for mastery to set in.  That’s pretty long!  If one were to fixate on the time frame, the chances of giving up is very likely.

There is no true end to this path.  The more you learn the higher the bar rises to reveal more to learn.  In martial arts, a black belt can appreciate the depth of subtleties hidden in the simplest of beginner moves to appreciate them anew. Even when there are no further ranks to achieve, one continues to progress.  There is always more to learn, new challenges to take.

Mastery is not the goal – it is the path of dedicated practice.

Mastery and Mindset

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor who has been studying motivation and achievement in children and young adults for 40 years, presented the idea that there are two types of mindsets (fixed and growth) , and these mindsets will determine whether or not we success in what we do.

In a fixed mindset, intelligence or talent are considered fixed trait that we are born with.  How well we can do in something depends on how well we did in the genetic lottery.  Someone operating in this mindset will expend significant energy in documenting their gifted traits rather than developing them, and will tend to believe talent alone creates success, with little effort.

In a growth mindset, one believes that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.  Intelligence and talent are merely starting points, this this mindset can foster a love of learning which is essential for great accomplishments.  Dweck points out that virtually all great people have had these qualities.

If we can learn to adopt a growth mindset (or if we are lucky enough to already be inclined in this direction) then mastery is possible. If we stick to a fixed mindset we are working against ourselves and we are less likely to achieve what we want.

For example, when learning to play piano, if I believe I can, with practice, learn to play a difficult piece that currently confounds me, then I will be motivated to keep trying until I finally get my fingers to cooperate. If I believe my fingers are not long enough, I am too old,  or I am simply not talented enough, then I am not likely to apply myself.

I like to think of myself as an optimistic pessimist.  I am quick to note the difficultly of something, but that I can surmount any difficulty I am willing to face. A habit I have developed to catch myself from getting to negative is, any time I say or think something  like “I can’t/will never be able to….” I immediately stop and consciously correct myself.    I will say something like, “No, I can, but I need to put the effort in.”  It is important to reframe defeatist thoughts like that, immediately and consciously.

Talent and Mastery

It may seem counter intuitive at first, but talent is not an important aspect of mastery.  Talent will only get you so far on the long path of mastery.  Ultimately mastery is a product of time and hard work.

Talent may make the fist steps easier but there is a down side as well.  One may not focus on the initial practice to develop a firm foundation, or may develop (or not unlearn) bad habits, and those will make process harder once the challenges inevitably surpass one’s level of talent. Those who struggle in the beginning are more likely to build a solid foundation that will later allow them to more easily surprise someone with talent that had been blowing through the beginning stage.

There are plenty of studies you can find on the Internet to confirm this: in the long term mastery is not about talent, but about the dedicated application of practice.

The takeaway here is not to fall into a fixed mindset when you hit challenges.  The voice in your head telling you that you are not talented enough is lying since talent has nothing to do with it.

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