Ascending the Plateau

One of the biggest problems in the lifelong pursuit of growth is in hitting a plateau. You first start out and everything is going pretty well, you can see yourself improving as you push yourself to new heights. All of a sudden, wham! The results turn into a trickle and no matter what you try you can’t seem to break through to the next level. You’ve hit a plateau.

For most people, a plateau is just a natural phase in their lives. Most people grow incredibly until they “settle down” at which point their growth becomes minor improvements over the last several decades of their lives. These are the people that secretly long for the days of their youth that were filled with growth but rationalize that, “those days are behind me.”

If you are reading this post, I’m assuming you don’t want to live your life like that. I want my entire life to experience to levels of growth as I continually improve my level of experience, plateau’s should be temporary blips not permanent obstacles. Life is what you make of it and I don’t want it to slow down to a trickle.

The only question is how you can overcome these plateaus? Ascending this level ground can often be very difficult because the strategy used previously won’t work anymore. Setting more goals, working harder and trying to keep yourself motivated will often fizzle out when you are stuck on the level plain. A completely different approach is necessary if you want to reach the next level.

What Causes a Plateau?

Plateaus are areas of your life where you want to improve but you seem to be stuck in the mud. Every move you make seems to be wrought with internal and external resistence. You try to motivate yourself, you procrastinate. You try to work harder and your efforts yield nothing. You set a lofty goal and end up coming nowhere close. These intractable barriers to growth can be incredibly frustrating. Understanding what causes a plateau in the first place is the key to remedying the problem.

Cause One: “Good Enough” Syndrome

One of the biggest causes of hitting a plateau is simply that you start telling yourself that it is good enough. My relationship is ‘good enough’. My career is ‘good enough’. My level of health is ‘good enough’. Then when you try to make smaller improvements you fail to scrounge up any success.

The problem here is that you’ve sunken into a positional mindset. A positional mindset is a way of thinking that evaluates how good your life is based on your current position in growth. By saying good enough you are implying that the amount of success you currently have is the key to your happiness. This is dead wrong.

The key to your happiness has less to do with position and a lot more to do with speed. How fast you are growing and overcoming challenges is the real key to your inner sense of worth and happiness. Although by virtue of comparison and necessity you can derive some happiness from a positional mindset, this kind of happiness is always temperamental and unreliable. When you deride happiness from your current amount of growth you are betting on the only security you have, the now.

Don’t get stuck in the trap of ‘good enough’. There is no such thing as good enough, or even not enough. All that matters is how much you are doing. You will suffer the chronic pain of stagnated growth if you get caught up in this way of thinking and it is one of the major causes of plateaus. Read, Balancing Today and Tomorrow if you want more info about positional versus velocity based thinking.

Cause Two: Your Cup is Full

A long time ago a very smart man left his village in search of an elder who was reported to be the wisest person alive. After journeying for hours in the wilderness, he came upon a mountain hovel where the elder resided. The elder welcomed the man and listened patiently as the man began to discuss all the topics he was knowledgeable in.

The elder started pouring tea for the man when the cup began to overflow. “The cup is overflowing!” shouted the man. “You can’t pour any more tea in the cup it is full,” the man tried to inform the elder, to which the elder replied, “You are the cup.”

I like this parable because it teaches an important lesson about how we can all have full cups in our own lives. A full cup is when you have achieved a level of success in your life that can’t simply be improved by adding more.

A great example of this is the friends you have. Let’s say you have a fair sized social circle but you don’t really value the relationships as much as you would like. You secretly begin to feel that you would like to make better friends who were more interesting, supportive and shared similar interests. Unfortunately you currently have a full cup. You can’t get new friends until you start spending less time (emptying the cup) with the friends you already have.

When you want to start a new career this inevitably means you must empty the cup of your old career and start filling a new one. Due to constraints you can’t start filling your cup without emptying it. A full cup is another key cause of hitting a plateau in your growth.

Cause Three: Lack of Motivation

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but pain motivates far, far more than pleasure. Just because you would like something in your life, doesn’t mean it has any chance of realization. But when you must have something because it is a necessity, the pain motivates you towards action. Thinking of how nice a goal would be doesn’t push you nearly as hard as when success or failure is attached to your survival.

A lack of motivation basically stems from a lack of need. You don’t feel motivated because you don’t feel the need. As I’ll discuss later in the article, creating this need from a simple desire can involve some pretty scary and counter-intuitive steps but sometimes these steps are necessary to rebuild your motivation.


Now that you understand some of the principle causes of hitting plateaus, how can you overcome them to reach new peaks in your own experience?

Utilize Lateral Growth

The first way to reach new heights is simply to get outside your comfort zone. Being in the same environment with the same stimulus and inputs will eventually create stagnation. By periodically exploring outside your environment and towards the periphery of your awareness you get the jump necessary to start making changes.

When you are placed in a radically new environment where you are forced to adapt, you grow like crazy. When you were an infant you grew more than at any other time of your life. When your entire world is new, everything you do becomes a learning experience from eating to sleeping. By putting yourself into a new environment you skyrocket your own growth.

But getting outside your comfort zone is uncomfortable and sometimes difficult. When we lead busy and productive lives within our current environment it can be hard to get up the courage to take on a new one. This is when you need to commit yourself to make small leaps outside your zone of awareness.

So if you feel that your efforts to make headway in an area of your life be it career, health, relationships or just your level of enjoyment, start by expanding your repertoire of experience. Go outside your comfort zone and do something you don’t normally do. Get a new perspective and when you return to your plateau you may suddenly see a set of stairs that was missing originally.

Implore Creative Destruction

Lateral growth on it’s own often isn’t enough. Although getting new experiences can twist and transform the landscape of your growth, some plateaus are dead-ends. Sometimes your cup is completely full and it is impossible to pour more into it. Unfortunately you will encounter many dead-ends in your own life where you need to take the terrifying move of climbing down before you can climb up again.

I’m not one for motivational spew that says just take wild risks and chase your dreams and they will come true, but at the same time I believe that you can’t always improve off your current foundation. Some improvements require breaking down much of what you have built. This creative destruction terrifies people, so very few even attempt to turn back when hitting a dead end.

Unfortunately the entire concept of a dead-end is based strongly in positional thinking. By reaching a local maximum in your growth you assume that the current position is what is important. This is nonsense, what matters is how much you are growing right now so stagnation is no compromise.

My favorite example of using creative destruction was when I recently completely remade my social structure after moving to University. Unlike a few of my highschool friends who stayed in close contact with old friends, I pretty much let go of virtually all of the ties I had before. While the few friends from highschool who came to the same University made very few connections with other people, I met hundreds and rapidly created a very large social network.

So long as I still felt there were friends back home waiting for me, I never would have made new friends and got a new fresh start. Holding onto the past has never been a hobby of mine and by letting go I get to enjoy a great present and future. I don’t look for comfort in what has past. Creative destruction is often necessary to reach a new level.

What happens if you climb down the plateau never to find as high a summit? Unfortunately this is reality and this is a very real possibility. But the real question isn’t whether you will go back as high but whether you will better enjoy the experience of growth or stagnation. Position isn’t relevant.

Some Plateaus are Okay

On a final note with the concept of plateaus it is important to note that sometimes hitting a plateaus in an area of your life for awhile isn’t a bad thing. Although you should always be growing in some respect, there is a natural limit to how much you can grow in one area without growing in others. Sometimes you need to accept your current position and pursue another form of growth.

So just because your relationship isn’t absolutely fantastic, doesn’t mean the solution is to leave your spouse to go marry a Nobel prize winning supermodel. Growth in other areas might give you the tools to either improve your current relationship or if necessary, find a more suitable one. Although I don’t normally preach acceptance over growth, as long as you are growing in some way, sometimes you do need to just sit on that plateau and enjoy the view.