Behavioral Psychology

Why People Plateau

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It’s true that there are limits to natural abilities and going too far beyond these limits is difficult, but it’s also true that most people never come close to reaching their full potential. We’re going to use some existential and behavioral ideas to show why people plateau, and show how a simple change in philosophy can help you keep pushing the boundaries, going much further in your pursuits than you would otherwise.

That thing we call ‘challenge’ might be mental, emotional, physical, but whatever forms it takes in your chosen interest, you’re usually excited for the challenge when you’re first starting out, mainly because you don’t know any better, you have that beginner’s mind, allowing you to just be open and excited about the experience without judging it too much.  Every day you learn something new, you grow, and it’s a fun time because you’re not really aware of your limitations yet, you have no grounds for comparison to see how far you’ll have to go, all the work and time that will be necessary to achieve mastery.

We can think of challenges at this point in the journey as positively reinforcing. You actively seek them out and feel rewarded by your confrontation with them. As you overcome some of these challenges you are reinforced to keep going, and you continue to improve, feeling good about yourself and your progress.

But then a funny shift happens, which is that the nature of your relationship with challenge changes. You start to place value judgements on where you are and where you think you should be, pride and narcissism start to rear their ugly heads. You plateau because you start to avoid challenges rather than embracing them, these challenges become negatively reinforcing because you don’t like the aversive feeling of finding out you’re not as good as you fancy yourself to be. The way to protect your ego is to stay away from doing anything outside of your comfort zone, outside of your skill level.

The problem of course is that edge is exactly where growth happens, it’s only by putting yourself in difficult but doable situations that you get better, constantly living in the zone of proximal development. When you plateau, you stop living in that zone, instead feeling content to give the same amount of effort, to avoid any risks that might make you seem worse than you are even though these experiences are exactly what you need to make you get better than you currently are.

The key is to let go of judgments and to constantly cultivate your beginner’s mind, treating challenges all along the journey the same way you treat them at the start, as positively reinforcing experiences where you get to use your own hard work and talents to learn and grow. Don’t let that shift happen where challenges move from feeling rewarding to feeling threatening and you’ll keep embracing the challenges, making sure you continue to progress too.