The idea of reaching a plateau is often used in reference to economic markets, diets, or exercise regimes when there is no longer an incline in success or improvement.
More and more, it seems people are also applying it to their own career, creative practice, or life. I’ve caught myself uttering the words, “I feel like I’ve plateaued,” or “My life has plateaued.” It’s never said in an upbeat tone – instead it’s cast like a shadow and paired with a subtle but detectable look of panic and eyes that seem to scream, What will become of me if I don’t keep achieving, growing, climbing, thriving??
By definition, a plateau is an area of fairly level, even ground often reached after a comparative climb. You’ve worked hard, achieved results, and hit a point in your career where your knowledge of a subject or your skill proficiency has levelled off – in other words, you’re good at what you do, you do it well, and the steep ascent or sense of challenge has temporarily ceased. You’re consistent in your output, your work, your being.
But when did consistency start to feel like failure? Instead of reflecting on our accomplishments or congratulating ourselves on the hard work in a moment of respite, we fix our gaze to the mountains ahead, berating ourselves for not being on top of those distant feats already.
There is a pressure to go higher and higher, work faster and faster, harder and harder, achieve more, and reach new grounds and new heights at an increasingly impossible pace and ascent.
But what we miss when we have this fixation is the beauty in the plateau. For staying still doesn’t always have to mean you are stuck – instead it allows opportunity to move around, to explore on your way to higher ground, or even take the right step back.
It’s in these moments of exploration or plateau that we can discover new ideas. As Milan Kundera said: “When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.”
Being in a plateau can feel demotivating for the very reason we should be celebrating it.
When we are learning something new or acquiring skills, we move through three stages: the cognitive phase where we are making lots of mistakes and intellectualizing the task; the associative stage where we are getting better; and then we reach the autonomous stage, or the plateau, where we have reached competency.
Competency and expertise are positive attributes, but because this phase lacks any positive reinforcement, we can’t help but look onwards and upwards to the next challenge, skill, or milestone to master that gives us those feel-good I’m-doing-something-with-my-life vibes.
Instead of taking a moment to uncover what we really want, we keep a pace that helps us maintain the appearance of success, hurtling towards a version of ourselves that in fact take us further and further away from what we really want to be doing.
We’re afraid of the plateau because we place little value in moving laterally in our career or lives – we’re even more so afraid of falling behind.
Have you ever had the desire to change direction or learn something new, only to stop yourself in your tracks because it would mean taking a perceived step backwards? It’s daunting to be bad at something for a while, it’s daunting to sit and take stock, to focus on different elements of our life, and – gasp – to take a break.
There are moments our everyday lives needn’t be about striving or making sure the world sees you taking another step up the success ladder. There are moments when life needn’t be dependent on our work or creative output, where a break can serve us well.
As Bob Sullivan writes in The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success: “Periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as periods of great effort, just as the silence between the notes is part of the music. If you use time as a tool, you can literally wait your way out of a plateau.”
What clouds our view or willingness to comfortably wait our way out of plateau is our ideas around success and particularly prestige. “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like,” writes Paul Graham in How to Do What You Love.
Can we go deeper into what we like and want instead of aiming for higher? Can we see that it’s human nature to run into plateaus, to move through a phase of learning to acquiring? Can we see that sometimes what keeps us on the ascent is someone else’s idea of success, not our own, or a superficial tick on the resume? The ascent is instant with its reward, but it’s also unsteady. The plateau is the levelling of our ideas, the reflection, the pace where we can simultaneously step back if we need to, yet still have the opportunity to take flight.
The plateau is where we can re-establish and create meaning. We can try new things and accept that it might not take us higher but that it will make us richer in the room we have to explore. We can learn to ignore what other people are doing and focus on what we want to do.
This is a defense for the plateau. When we’ve reached one level – achieved one goal – let’s pause, take a moment to feel like maybe we’re enough, and see the beauty in the consistency.
There’s no such thing as a perfect career or perfect trajectory, and you needn’t berate yourself for the shape your own is taking, or where you currently reside in the landscape.
Maybe that means you’ll be kicking your heels around on a dusty plateau for a little while figuring it out; or maybe it’s the necessary break before the ascent.
The key is to remember we are constantly growing, learning, taking steps back, up, sideways, and sometimes we are still. We are growing and stagnating in different areas of our lives all the time, and that’s okay.