Tagged: mastery

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.

Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Expression

Repetition Creating Expression

In this series, we are exploring different ways repetition can lead us to mastery. So far we have looked at discipline and expertise. This time we go one step deeper, to expression.

LEVEL 3 – REPETITION CREATES EXPRESSION

Level 2 of DEEP mastery – expertise – is about fixing flaws. It’s about pursuing perfection. Learning new facts. Acing the test. Putting our skills to work in different circumstances.

Level 3 is where we set aside perfection.

By the time we get here, we know we can be nearly perfect. We also know perfection is not where the real growth is.

In the hands of masterful talent, flaws can be magical. Listen to the best violinists. Their precision is so amazing that they can create intentional imperfection in the performance. Waiting a fraction of a second longer for one note. Rushing another. Stretching the tones. Their imperfection has another name: interpretation.

Our Level 2 repetitions let us perform perfectly. And we don’t want that. Perfect is boring. Perfect is sterile. Introducing variations or flaws makes our creation more compelling.

The aesthetic of wabi-sabi is about appreciating the beauty of the imperfect.

The beauty in imperfection

A basketball player might notice he has enough airtime to dunk the ball with style instead of make a utilitarian score.

Athletic Expression

A project manager might be so versed in timelines and process that (s)he can find quality, cost savings or efficiency by refocusing on the individual strengths of the team.

Casting Perfection Aside

At first, it’s about doing it right. Am I showing up? Am I doing my reps? Am I performing this skill well? Perfection matters. And then it doesn’t.

In Level 3, we put our personal touch on the skill by letting it stray from perfect – and in doing so we might just redefine perfect. Here, creativity is paired with repetition. We add personal expression, and our distinctive style emerges. We become memorable.

The biggest learning comes from failure. We can refine and refine through repetition, but it only gets us so far. We might become perfect, but we lack distinction. We might be consistent but perform far below our potential. We may even be seen as the best in the world but be sacrificing an opportunity to expand what’s possible.

I struggle with that borderline between expertise and expression. While my team has won the last two world championships in the Pairs division, I would love for there to have been even more risk and expression in our performances. We nailed the consistency we needed to win, and in doing so sacrificed expressing ourselves through a wider variety of catches. I am proud of both performances, and the level 3 part of me yearns for more expression in each performance.

When repetition is in service of expression, we pursue perfection so we can embrace chaos.

The errors, the goofs, the rough sketches, the failures. Those are where bigger breakthroughs lurk. In fact, the farther we take our skills, the more we scoff at perfection because it holds us back. Being exceptional happens by finding the spaces that invite expression and in seeking out chaos.

Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Discipline

Repetition Creates Discipline

There’s a leap from having raw talent to doing something about it. That’s where repetition (aka practice) comes in. Raw talent will lead to incredible peak moments, but the practiced expert is going to win out in the long run. Natural brilliance is no match for strong skills developed deep and wide. It’s why the wily veterans are able to overcome the cocky upstarts so often.

When we look at practice in terms of training vs working out, we look at our experience of the activity in the moment and how it connects to what matters to us. Another way of thinking about it is repetition. Through a lens of repetition, we can see all the strikingly different ways we can be in the moment.

Repetition is a core component of practice. If we are doing something about our raw talent by practicing, we might assume there’s a simple relationship. Put in the reps. Get better. Turns out there’s more than one way reps help you get better. Some give you moderate payoffs. Others transform you and expand what was thought to be possible.

I see a four level model of the payoffs from repetition. I call it DEEP Mastery. In this series, we will explore how each level transforms repetition into different flavors of mastery. Level 1 is Discipline.

LEVEL 1 – REPETITION CREATES DISCIPLINE

Level 1 is counterintuitive, a bit of a paradox. We need discipline to do our repetitions. We can’t even start shaping our raw talent without it. It makes us show up and be focused toward completing the mission.

That’s not the discipline of Level 1. We need to flip it around to see discipline really driving us toward mastery.

Mastery emerges when we use repetition to build discipline.

When we repeat, we get bored. In that moment of boredom, one of our choices is to bail. I do that often with running. Only a few minutes into a run, I can’t wait for it to be over. That’s why I am not moving toward being a masterful runner.

Another choice is to keep practicing. If we make this choice, we expand our commitment to the goal. We build our capacity for discipline. We skew our reaction to boredom from quitting toward continuing, we can apply that discipline throughout our life.

There are no traffic jams along the extra mile. – Roger Staubach (or Paula Abdul, depending on who you believe)

Your breaking point is where you set yourself apart. At the moment you’re bored or exhausted or out of ideas, being willing to go one more step gives you the edge.

I was confident at this year’s world championships. One important reason was that my team had put in reps. We had often chose to go more rounds of practice than we wanted, sometimes in laughably poor conditions. We knew what our performances felt like when we were physically and mentally exhausted. Great training for a mentally demanding world championship held in the thin, mountain air of Medellin, Colombia! It paid off. My team won, and I was rewarded with my 16th world championship title.

You know what repetitions look like when you’re fresh. Looking at it from the point of exhaustion is a different level of discipline.

Next time you have a choice to continue or bail, make a conscious choice. Another repetition may just create the discipline that takes you to your next victory.