Your Greatest Successes May Come After the Plateau

Success isn’t linear

Photo: Trevor Williams/Getty Images

Every year around this time, the same piece of motivation makes the rounds: If you want to do something new and you practice it regularly, you’ll get a little bit better each time. You may have heard of it as the “1% rule” — the idea that continuously improving by just 1% makes a dramatic difference over time.

It sounds great. For anything you’re attempting, the promise of steady, incremental improvement can be a powerful incentive. But it’s also often unrealistic, especially if you are already skilled to begin with. For example, try telling someone who currently deadlifts 500 pounds or writes prizewinning fiction or develops impeccable code that they should be getting a percent or two better every single day. Not gonna happen.

A more accurate description of progress looks something like this:

When you are brand new to an activity, you might get significantly better every day. For the first few times, you may even get 100% better. As your skill level increases, the gains will become more incremental — 10%, 5%, 1%, half a percent, a quarter of a percent, and so on. At some point, the gains will be so small that you can’t even observe them. You might find yourself feeling stuck on a plateau for a few days, weeks, or months.

And then, suddenly, you have a breakthrough.

In other words, progress is nonlinear. The implication of this truth is both simple and significant: If you’re addicted to visible progress, then sooner or later, you’ll burn out of whatever you’re pursuing. This is a big reason so many people quit after the honeymoon phase of trying something new.

The more skilled you get, the more important it becomes to release yourself from your attachment to progress and to find joy in other things: the work itself and the community in which you do it. That’s the stuff that will keep you coming back for more over the long haul. It’s what will give you the motivation to show up when you are stuck and keep you grounded when you succeed.

Keep pounding the stone. Some days nothing happens. Some days it cracks a little bit more. Occasionally, it splits wide open.

A version of this post originally appeared in my newsletter, The Growth Equation.

Bestselling author of Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox. Co-Creator of The Growth Equation. Coach to executives, entrepreneurs, and MDs.

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