Tagged: learning

Plateaus and Four Ways to Get Past Them

Everyone hits plateaus on the way to impossible goals, but there are things you can do to get past them more quickly: staying with the plan, changing the plan, easing up and staying one step ahead.

Why Am I Stuck On This #@*%ing Plateau?

I’ve hit a plateau. Actually I’ve hit hundreds.

We all reach a point where progress toward a impossible goal stalls or even feels like we’re moving backward. It plateaus.

If you don’t reach one, it’s a sign that you’re worthy of a bigger goal.

Plateaus can feel awful, but they can also be a beautiful waypoint. And they are an inevitable part of reaching for something extraordinary. By learning to move past them quicker, we reduce the pain and get to the finish line faster.

Four Plateau-Busting Strategies Plus 1 Essential Component

Below are four ideas for moving past a plateau. The common element to all of them is having people around you for support. Whether that’s a coach like me, a colleague, a spouse or a friend, information from external sources helps you to design your next steps and experience plateaus with less discomfort.

1. Stay With The Plan

It’s possible that you underestimated what it takes to reach your goal.

Sometimes our idea of how fast things should happen is simply wrong. Especially for those of us who have had an easy time learning new skills, we might believe the next skill should come quickly. Wrong. That’s called a fixed mindset, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

That new skill we wanted to learn in 10 repetitions might take us 100 repetitions to master. Or 1000. With a fixed mindset, those last 990 repetitions (if we do them) feel like a death march of failure.

Contrast that to the growth mindset. The growth mindset is neutral and observant. After 10 reps, the growth mindset experiences something like “Wow, we’re not making the progress we hoped for. Okay, let’s evaluate. What’s working? What’s not? Is this still the optimal plan? Cool. Let’s keep going and see how things progress.” The growth mindset is aware, it’s hopeful but not attached to a result. And it’s scientifically proven to lead to better outcomes.

Six years ago I started a quest to become one of the top players in a second sport. I had already won 14 world championships in freestyle flying disc, and I would win 2 more while taking on this new adventure. While I knew what it took to become a top player in freestyle, I didn’t have all the information on this new sport (called DDC). Fortunately, I had a great mentor who sped my progress.

And I still hit plateaus.

What I didn’t realize was that truly mastering the essential skills for DDC was going to take a lot more work than I thought. Once I came to terms with that, I not only stayed with the plan but doubled down on it. I knew my throws were not at a high enough level for the DDC I wanted to play, so I started noticing more opportunities for throwing practice. These sessions were exciting and injected new energy into my experience of DDC.

Thousands of practice throws later, I was more consistent and effective. My stress level in games went down because I could count on the muscle memory of my practices when executing plays.

2. Revise The Plan

Most of the time, our first instinct is to work harder or give up. That temptation to give up is real. It’s a heavy feeling to wonder whether we can actually get there and if it’s all worth it. When we get to this point – and we all do – it’s a symptom that we’re focusing too much on the end point and not enough on the experience of getting there.

Staying connected to a winning mindset is essential. Any victory is going to be fleeting. If the purpose is to finish a marathon or get a promotion or win a world championship, what happens once you’ve done it? There is a literal graveyard of people whose lives felt completely empty after achieving an impossible goal.

What if you could arrive at that finish line and be more of yourself, full of pride in the effort invested in the chance at victory? If we can do that, we emerge stronger with more long-term resilience.

So, the plateau. What you’ve been trying feels like it’s not working. Your performance isn’t improving. Your progress seems stalled.

For my DDC project, I had timelines for my progress and ideas of where I should finish at my next tournaments. It all seemed very obvious. And I was wrong most of the time.

I was catching up to the level of more experienced players and thought I knew what it took to get there. With every breakthrough, a new blindspot opened up between me and my goal. After feeling frustrated by underperforming over and over, I took a fresh look at the plan.

As I mentioned, I started practicing more often on my own. I also started noticing what else might work. Playing with the local club was a great learning lab, and it didn’t put me in enough top level games, so I played as many pick-up games after competitions as I could. Teaming up with elite players helped me learn to adapt and deal with more sophisticated game situations than what I was familiar with. And it started to build my reputation.

I noticed that the additional throwing practice was helping with basic technique but that the top players had resilient technique that performed in a variety of wind conditions, so I practiced in “bad” wind too and threw hundreds of incompetent shots in order to raise my level of competence.

By revising my plan often, I believe I shortened my plateaus and accelerated my progress.

3. Ease Up

This is the fun one, and it has its risks. Sometimes the best way to get past a plateau is taking a break. Most often, by taking a break, we are allowing our brain to go to work in the background integrating all our learning so it’s more ready to be used next time. During intense periods of learning and training, we sometimes don’t give our brain enough time to do its thing.

Over the past few years I’ve been learning new languages using an app called Duolingo. I’m probably one of their power users. I have a streak of more than 650 consecutive days of doing lessons. When learning new languages, I have the visceral experience of how we reprogram our brain when we master new skills. There are very few things as basic as the words we use to communicate. Changing that code sometimes feels like I’m twisting my mind. I go through cycles of immersing myself in Duolingo’s lessons and easing up to a minimum level. What I’ve noticed is that my brain starts to pick up new patterns after easing up. I give my brain time to catch up and lock the learning in, and I get more out of the next lessons.

For my DDC project, I’ve found the best results easing up after a competition. During the competition, I’m learning but my brain needs needs more time to let it all soak in. Giving myself some time after a competition opens the door for improvements. Something that was a struggle before is more natural. Or, strategic opportunities become more obvious. It changes every time.

Here is the risk: there is a fine line across easing up, being lazy and giving up.

When you decide easing up is your strategy, monitor whether it’s actually a strategy or whether you are avoiding doing the work. Monitor your gut. Is easing up just a sneaky way of quitting? Keep connected to the motivations for your goal and keep designing the experience you want to create for your life as you pursue it.

4. Stay One Step Ahead

Most of the time, we realize we’ve plateau’d while we’re already struggling. What if we could be one step ahead, predicting the plateau and solving it before it sets in?

Going back to my quest to learn DDC, what if I had been in deeper communication with my mentor about what it takes to get to the top? I had such absolute trust that my approach was much closer to “he’ll reveal what’s next when the time is right,” but what if I had been in conversation about what to expect, what to be doing differently.

It’s possible that I could have skipped or shortened a plateau or two. It’s also possible that I wasn’t ready to hear the complete plan. You know how when rereading a book, we see things we never noticed during the first read? If I read a book six years ago about becoming a better DDC player, I might have seen some lessons but not really noticed them, not known how they were actionable. On rereading, previously invisible lessons would jump out as A HA! moments.

To stay ahead of plateaus, we need to gather information and feedback and hope we notice the important lessons in time to speed us past a plateau and toward the finish line.

Ready To Jump To Your Next Plateau?

Which strategy do you need now? It may take some exploration.

Let’s be clear. Whichever strategy you choose, it leads to another plateau.

Sound depressing? It doesn’t have to be. As we navigate these plateaus, leaping from one to the next, what keeps it beautiful is being in the moment. By staying connected to why we are taking on the impossible, we can shape our experience as we stay in the process. We can see plateaus as inspirational evidence that things are working. And as an opportunity to optimize our plan.

As for me, as I write this I have made three finals at major tournaments this year, including a runner-up finish at the world championships in England. I’m ready to jump to what’s next.

The Failure of Failing Forward

Mooki FAIL

(This article is based on a talk I gave today at Nonprofit Boot Camp in San Francisco.)

Haunted By Failure

A few years ago I led a program at Craigslist Foundation called LikeMinded. It was part of a high profile suite of projects funded by a major foundation. Like 9 out of 10 web initiatives, it didn’t catch on.

It’s almost three years later, and this is the first time I’ve written about it publicly. There’s a taboo around talking about failure, and I’m ready to defy that taboo.

LikeMinded failed for all sorts of reasons, including the most important one: the world decided it wasn’t essential.

What I’ve been learning recently is that what is essential is a real relationship with failure.

We all fail, and failure hurts. I invested years of my life leading this initiative for Craigslist Foundation and traveled more than 100,000 miles learning from community members and partners. When it didn’t take hold, it was disappointing. And when Craigslist Foundation didn’t last long enough for us to learn from round one and try again, it was doubly frustrating.

We don’t have to share our failures publicly, but sharing them has an important role. It helps us move forward. It helps us get the disappointment out in the open so we can process the emotions and grow from the experience.

I grew from my LikeMinded experience. Leading the initiative expanded my skills, and I discovered that they were exactly the type of skills that help me in my current role as a peak performance expert and leadership coach.

The Real Stakes of Failure

failure is cool

This summer I went to a talk about failure. For our name tags, everyone was asked to answer the question: “How do you handle a moment of failure?”

Almost every answer was a variation on: “move on,” “fail more,” or “fail bigger.”

These answers come from a concept called Failing Forward. Originally, this was a great concept. It connected people to the idea that we don’t need to be stopped by failure, and in fact failure might be the pathway to bigger victories.

But somewhere along the line, Failing Forward got corrupted to the point where failure became the badge of honor instead of moving forward. Rather than being a tool, failure has almost become the end. That’s not cool.
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5 Things I Did Not Expect to Learn from Woody Allen

I’m not a Woody Allen fan. While I have enjoyed a few of his movies, most of the time I find them uninteresting, unfunny and contrived. His latest film, Blue Jasmine, is set here in the Bay Area and had some word-of-mouth, so I gave it a chance. And it was bad.

I’m not surprised that Oscars voters gave Allen a screenwriting nomination this morning. He gets a lot of free passes. I’m sad for the writers whose quality work was passed over in favor of Allen’s reputation.

Look for the Cate Blanchett

Blue Jasmine is a mess except for exceptional acting performances, primarily from Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins. Blanchett and Hawkins give Blue Jasmine its strength, and I was happy to see their Oscar nominations. In the midst of what is otherwise a train wreck, their performances redeem the experience.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic. It’s elusive to define, but one way to think of it is beautifully flawed. Cracked pottery. A vocal solo that becomes unforgettable because of the cracks in the singer’s voice. Wabi Sabi. The beauty in the flaw. Finding the Cate Blanchett in a Blue Jasmine.

Seeing Blue Jasmine made me want to write about how wrong the movie is and about how generally wrong Woody Allen’s filmmaking is, but it became more important to find the Wabi Sabi of Woody Allen. What can we learn from this depressing, strange man’s success? What is Woody Allen doing right and wrong, and how can we use those lessons?

Lesson 1: Persistence

Allen makes roughly a movie per year. He’s released 44 films since 1966. Most of them make little impact and disappear, but he has built a reputation that allows him to continue making films in spite of repeated failure.

Every five to ten years, he makes something good that amplifies his legend. The clunkers are forgotten. The hits are remembered.

It’s about persistence. If a success rate of 1 in 10 is enough to become legendary, then we should plug away. We should create often. We should brush off failure and keep grinding forward.

Lesson 2: Be Economical

One of the things Allen does well is operate on a budget. He’s built his reputation such that people will waive their normal fees to work with him. By keeping the costs of each project low, each failure matters less and each success has bigger upside.

The lesson here: take lots of smaller risks and run with the successes.

Lesson 3: Know Your Audience

Woody Allen is not writing movies for me. He’s been fortunate to find a niche audience, one that’s almost big enough to make his movies profitable. He found them, and he keeps speaking to them. Tyler Perry’s done the same thing on a much bigger scale. Both filmmakers release at least one movie a year and speak unapologetically to their niche audience.

It’s a cool thought that all of our freaky endeavors may have an audience among the 7 billion people on our planet. All we have to do is figure out who they are and reach them with something valuable.

Lesson 4: Use Your Team

We all need a support system to reach our peak level of performance, and most of us don’t cultivate the kind of support we need. Behind the scenes, Allen uses his team well for logistics. He has a well-oiled production team that puts all pieces together so he can focus on writing and directing.

Where Allen doesn’t use his team well is quality control. The people around us – our team – are one of our greatest assets. Used actively, they can build and refine good ideas. They can connect us to those who can help us reach our goals. They can keep us on track when we’re off the mark.

In Blue Jasmine, Allen’s quality control was absent. We learn that a large portion of San Franciscans talk with New York accents and that San Francisco is a sunny and warm city with no wind, fog or rain. We learn that there are no gay people in San Francisco – or Latinos or African Americans except when used as menacing set dressing. Something I never knew until seeing Blue Jasmine was that mid-level jobs in the diplomatic corps are lucrative enough to pay for multimillion dollar Marin homes.

Strange and distracting messages. If Allen weren’t operating in a vacuum, his support system would have guided him to small changes that could hold his film together. Which leads us to lesson 5.

Lesson 5: Be Real

Being real binds an experience together. It’s grounding and sometimes uncomfortable. And it can take work. Without realness, we’re out of touch and things get unconvincing and distracting.

I rarely find Woody Allen’s work real. In Blue Jasmine, a story about losing touch with reality, Allen is disconnected from the real in all the wrong ways. I’m not sure whether Allen cuts corners because of the pace of his filmmaking or whether he just doesn’t care about details. There’s a lot of comedy and absurdity about life in San Francisco, but Allen walked away from bountiful comic material and chose to cast New Yorkers as San Franciscans and have them act out a nonsensical plot. The locations look familiar but the people have nothing to do with the city. They don’t ring true. They’re not real.

So how do we stay real? It seems a lot like balancing. We’re always being pulled away from the real, but we have to actively draw ourselves back toward it. Knowing ourselves is key. Otherwise we won’t know when we’ve been pulled away. That support system is important too. Trusted friends can keep us in line.

Just Five? Okay. Here’s An Easter Egg

This post is about what we can learn from Woody Allen, and it’s also about me shifting from venting mode into learning mode. So there’s actually a bonus lesson here, an Easter Egg.

The hidden secret sixth lesson is about Wabi Sabi and Cate Blanchett. It goes something like this. Being real means you get to have an opinion about things – like for instance that Blue Jasmine is a crappy movie. It even means you get to share that opinion. But the sixth lesson is that over-focusing on what’s wrong is a distraction. Writing a blistering movie review is not what’s important in my life. Dwelling on all the many faults of the film nearly distracted me from the larger takeaways I’ve written about here. The secret sixth lesson is about learning. It’s about looking past the emotional reaction and seeing what’s useful. Finding the genius in the flaws. Few of us are good at the secret sixth lesson, but it may just be the most important one.

A Footnote

In writing this, I stumbled on a James Altucher piece from a few years ago. Same Woody Allen theme with some different perspectives. Worth reading.