How Plateauing Occurs: Pace vs. Potential

How Plateauing Occurs: Pace vs. Potential

Imagine you had thirty-three seconds to pick up a glass of water, take it across the room, and throw the water down the sink.

Could you do it?


And you wouldn’t need more than ten seconds to do the task, especially if the sink isn’t very far away. Now give that very same task to a two-year old child and watch what happens.

Yup, kids of that age struggle with everything!

In fact, if that toddler spilt half the contents of the glass on your carpet, you wouldn’t be overly surprised. So why does that toddler struggle so much? The reason for the struggle is because that child’s brain is thinking of everything.

Thinking? What’s bad about thinking?

Well, for one, it takes up a lot of energy

When you picked up the glass, you didn’t think about it, but here’s what you did. You placed your thumb and another finger around the glass. Then the other fingers wrapped themselves mere seconds later.

A millisecond later, your brain was able to calculate the amount of water, the possible weight of the glass and enable you to accurately lift it from the table, without thinking about it.

This non-thinking zone is the plateau

Imagine having to think of everything: how we drive, how we walk, how we talk—how we do almost everything we do every day.

Our brains would quickly get overburdened with all the steps. That’s because your brain needs twice as much energy than most other cells in your body. To have to think of every action, would be like the brain having to turn on every single light in a five-bedroom house all at once.

And all the time too. That’s not only tiring but also a complete waste of energy.

So the brain makes the action as automatic as possible

If it first needed to ‘turn on thirty lights’ to get the job done, it begins to turn ‘fewer and fewer lights’ to get the very same task done. The task of lifting a glass and tipping it over may take ‘thirty lights’ for that two-year old, but your brain needs a lot ‘fewer lights’ to do the same thing. And paradoxically, your learning has reached a plateau.

The very thing that makes our lives easier also makes it miserable

You see this when you’re teaching a course, for instance. On the cartoon course, we start off with a new assignment and there is nothing but groaning and moaning as the participants take on the task of learning.

But about four days later, after some practice, their brain works out the mistakes and makes the task mostly automatic—especially if it’s a a small task. When we learn many such tasks and understand the sequence of these tasks, we plateau.

So for most of us, driving a car isn’t a problem

Most of us could be woken up at 2am in the morning, and still drive. We could be given half a bottle of wine, and yes our driving would be impaired, but we would still be able to drive. We could juggle eating a banana, scream at the kids in the background, speak on the phone—and generally be a super-hazard to ourselves and others—but still drive.

That’s because most of the elements of the driving routine are automatic. No more learning is required unless you run into a new situation. And while this is ‘automation’ is exactly what we need, it’s also a super-curse.

The plateau follows almost immediately

At this point, you feel comfortable, and you stay well within that comfort zone. So for instance someone on the cartooning course, would be easily able to draw several cartoons in a space of 6-9 months of instruction.

A cartoonist that is in the plateau-zone would find it hard to understand the concepts of tones, focal point, spot colour, balance of vertical and horizontal, variation contrast, consistent humour, broken lines, perspective etc. Even those very words would put sheer fear into their brains. They would want to stick to the core of lines, emotions, possibly some perspective.

Sure they can draw, but the process of drawing is being done without thinking. It’s second nature. Automatic.

And that’s the plateau

The only way to get out of that plateau is to keep pushing the boundaries. As your brain slips into auto mode, enjoy the ride for a while, then go back into manual. And that’s when you get smarter. But of course, this requires your brain to switch on all those ‘thirty lights’. It’s a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. So most of us head back to our automatic transmission. And that’s the difference between pace and potential.

If you truly want to soar, you can’t go at pace forever

You have to find your potential. Any two-year old can tell you that.

P.S. All this nonsense about how we ‘can’t remember names, can’t draw, can’t cook, can’t dance, can’t write’ is just that: nonsense! It’s a life that’s being lived at pace, not potential. The plateau is a great place to be for most of the time, but sometimes go up in the mountains. It’s heady up there!

Do you have a question or comment? Write it here and I will respond.

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  1. says

    There needs to be a bit of a rush because no one gets any more time. Mastery is impossible, because the variables change all the time. But the biggest problem with people isn’t mastery—it’s laziness and excuses.

  2. says

    George Leonard, author of “Mastery” said, “We need to love the plateaus.”

    Too often we forget that the learning curve of knowledge is different than the one for know-how (skill). Knowledge learning is exponential because we usually have some brain cell connections and can associate the new knowledge with our existing structure.

    The learning curve for know-how takes extra brain and body effort. We make a little progress and then hit a plateau. Most of us get frustrated while on the plateau instead of moving (keeping pace). The more we take one step forward at a time, the more progress we make. Mastery in some cases takes a life-time. What’s the rush?

    Pace will lead to potential….

  3. Carl Bryant says

    I haven’t been reading your articles are some time. Your articles are sent to an e-mail address that I don’t check so often. Also, after reading them for probably a year or so, they started getting very repetitive- the same content would start turning up over and over again . I just read your article on reaching a plateau. I’m thoroughly impressed at the new material, and the way it made this even more clear and simple to understand than you used to. Your writing ability is obviously still improving.

    Thank you for this article. I found it quite refreshing today.

    On another note, I’d love to spend time doing the marketing, I feel like I don’t have the time to learn all these things. Maybe that’s just an excuse, maybe that might give you an idea for you next article to write. I’m going to look forward to reading it.

    Again, thank you.

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