Nov 3, 2021–Plateau is a great word.

But it’s a frustrating place to find yourself.

I’ve gotten stuck on plateaus in many journeys of my life. The most recent is physical, as I recover from several weeks of involuntary immobility. For a guy who has worked out in some form every day since he made the 7th-grade football team, dropping 14% of my body mass in one month left a hill to climb. And I mean that both figuratively and literally.

The first few days it was all I could do to get from my bed to the bathroom. My initial “workout” was going up one step and back down four times in a row. The next day I could double it to eight times before being winded and sending my heart rate into the 120s. Yet every day my fitness was double the previous day’s. Within weeks I was walking a half mile, riding my bike, and doing weights, all one small step at a time.

But a funny thing happened on my stairway to healthy. I hit the inevitable plateau.

I define a plateau as a place where you pass the point of celebrating minor gains, yet abandon hope of approaching mastery.

Here is my theory about why this happens. Going from 4 steps to 16 steps was not going to win a marathon, yet it represented a quadrupling in fitness level over only three days.

But riding 4.25 miles instead of 4.0 miles is only a 5% increase. That’s not even a decent tip.

It has been the same in other fields. When I was learning Spanish in high school and college, it was hard but exhilarating as I struggled through basic grammar and pronunciation. Every week I experienced leaps in understanding and fluency. The adrenaline kicked in even more when I was able to spend a couple of years in a Spanish-speaking country. I almost felt like a native speaker.

But again, I hit that plateau (“mesa” in Spanish). I remember it distinctly. I was the only gringo at a party of native speakers. I had been in country for over a year, and had mastered Spanish 101, able to carry on daily conversation to get around without help, and even date. But as the topic of conversation deepened, I found myself frustrated because I couldn’t adequately express my thoughts about something that required use of the subjunctive. My mates pretended to understand, but I know my speech was coming out pidgin-style. Suddenly I understood what it must feel like to be “mentally challenged.” Everyone is nice and nodding, but they quickly glance away and take another drink to hide their embarrassment at your speech impediment.

The same happens in learning a new musical instrument. At first, there is the thrill of decoding the roll pattern on 5-string banjo, finally getting the scales fingered on the violin, or using all the black keys on the piano. But after mastering the basics and taking the instrument live in a band, you hit that wall where you just don’t know enough to handle the lead lick on Rocky Top.

I haven’t figured out how to move past the plateau. The amount of effort to go from “good” to “great” is so much more than the effort to go from “idiot” to “adequate.” Usually I lose interest and switch instruments. This is probably not the path to success, but it’s enabled me to learn to play a lot of instruments, poorly. I’m proud to have reached plateaus in several fields.

While the view from there is not as breathtaking as standing on the mountaintop, there’s a lot more room.