Escaping the Dreaded Plateau

You know that awkward moment when you get just good enough at something to realize how bad you are at it?

Once upon a time, that moment would discourage me to the point of quitting. Now, I’m learning to be ok with skill gaps. Turns out, they are completely normal.

I love this video. Ira puts into plain english exactly how I’ve felt time and time again: I love what I’m working on. I know what’s good. What I’m working on isn’t good. Argh.

When this happens to me, it’s tempting to give up. It’s good to remember Ira’s encouragement to keep working, even when your work sucks.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.

When I was in college I took up guitar. Like many, many, other kids. You know, I was becoming an artist. I had songs to write, to sing. I had Oasis covers to learn. And yeah, it was a pretty effective method for winning the hearts of the ladies (hello, wife).

For a few months, the rush of learning to play and sing my favorite songs kept me going, and I progressed rapidly. I’d grab the guitar and play for hours, figuring out new and more challenging songs to perform.

What I didn’t do was play scales or learn music theory or study chord structure (much).

At some point my playing and singing got just good enough to get what I initially wanted (attention, heh), but not good enough to move me forward in a music career. I could pick up a guitar at the party and sing out a solid rendition of “Slide Away,” and hearts would melt. I could even string together my own chord progressions and sing my own tunes. But should any fellow musician suggest I come jam with them, the game would be up. I didn’t really know how to play guitar. I was faking it.

At least, that was my mindset. In reality, my learning had plateaued. I had gotten good enough with my performance of the 50 songs I knew to keep doing them over and over again. I stayed with what was working and stopped learning.

Bring It On Down.

The more I played with others, the more aware I became of how I’d stopped growing as a musician. These guys and girls would be wailing, but I was stuck. I felt terrible about my skills.

I remember picking up a guitar and playing scales for the first time. It felt like starting over. My fingers didn’t move that way so readily. I was flubbing a lot, and I couldn’t make sense of how things fit together. What does one actually do with these scales?

I’m sad to say it, but 9 times out of 10 I’d fall back on the simple chord progressions I already knew.

Don’t Look Back In Anger.

It’s now eight years later, and I never did make it past those simple chords.

Maybe there are more reasons for this than just the discouragement I felt from not being as good as I thought I should be. I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t really want to be a musician, and other interests surpassed my desire to be a rock star (who’d of thought?). My time and attention gradually shifted elsewhere.

Still, I picked up a guitar the other day and couldn’t help but wonder about those glory days. Could it be that if I had known Ira’s wise words and stuck with it when it was hard, I would now be the accomplished musician that some college kid looks up to with amazement?

It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)

It got me thinking about other areas in my life similar to my guitar playing plateau.

Do I let discouragement over the quality of my creative work get in the way of continuing to produce it? How do I respond when I don’t meet my own standard of perfection?

And what about areas of life, creative or otherwise, where I grow complacent with where I am? Have I stopped looking up? Stopped working towards a more meaningful life and career? Towards more meaningful relationships? Are there even some things I need to learn to be content with – to let go of and stop striving after?

These are big questions, and I hope to have a chance to explore them further on this blog. I have some cool stuff on the creative side to mention in light of these thoughts in future posts, but in the meantime, what do you think? Got any ideas about what it means to plateau, and how to escape when you do? Hit me up in the comments or on twitter.