In defence of a life plateau

Art by  Gorkie

Art by Gorkie

Words by Madeleine Dore
&
Art by Gorkie


pla·teau
1. An elevated, comparatively level expanse of land; a tableland
2. A relatively stable level, period, or state

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, knowledge of a subject or skill proficiency where there is a natural levelling off – in other words, you’re good at what you do, do it well, and the steep ascent or sense of challenge has temporarily ceased. You're consistent in your output, your work, your being.

Yet in a culture that favours growth, momentum and productivity, suddenly consistency starts to feel like a lot 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 increasing pace and ascent.

Suddenly consistency starts to feel like a lot 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.

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.”

Art by  Gorkie    

Art by Gorkie  

Confusing stillness with falling behind

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 intellectualising 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 heaven forbid, to take a break.

In artist Minna Gilligan’s thoughtful piece Stepping Back (so far), merely taking a short holiday and break to move house was mistakenly viewed as an official hiatus from her art practice.

“There’s something so sinister about that idea of being completely reliant for your existence and life’s work to be valued not only on the amount you make, but of what you display. While I don’t think that I have actually retreated from my practice at all this past year, not allowing an artist the right to do so without immediately being deemed irrelevant is really dangerous.”

Shouldn’t it be possible to enjoy a moment of quiet in life or our career, free from criticism from others and ourselves? Be it a few days, a week, a year, or longer, there are moments when other priorities take place – be it moving house, be it parenthood, be it financially, physically or mentally driven. 

There are moments our daily lives don’t need to 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’s 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.

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 ours, or a superficial tick on the resume?

The plateau is where we can re-established and create meaning. As Jonathan Harris points out: “In the trade off between timeliness and timelessness, choose the latter. The zeitgeist rewards timeliness, but your soul rewards timelessness. Work on things that will last.”

In the plateau we find our own version of timelessness. We can try new things and accept that might not take us higher but they will make us richer in the room we have to explore. We can learn to ignore what other people are doing and focusing on what you want to do.

This is a defence 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.

Madeleine Dore