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What Kills Your Dreams or The Dreaded Plateau

Do the work Douglas Smith quote

Do the work Douglas Smith quoteFor quite some time I was heading straight up. My writing became steadily better, my game designs were continuously more interesting. I liked where I was going.

Then I failed.

See, no rising curve lasts forever, no breakthrough is endless. At some point you will come to the dreaded plateau.

What happens is that as you start in on something your skills will rapidly increase. You’ll be learning new things by the simple method of never having experienced them before. The difference between never having been fishing and casting that lure into the water for the first time is huge. But then you cast it and cast it and cast it and you don’t catch anything. You curse and spit and decide to go home. You’ve plateaued. And you’ll never catch that fish.

When we hit a plateau it feels like we aren’t getting better, like nothing is moving forward. This character is stupid, that game will never amount to anything. We rewrite and playtest and nothing, absolutely nothing, gets done.

Except it does. We’re practicing.

See, after you’ve learned that skill for the first time you need time to practice it. The great joy of hacking out Twinkle-twinkle on the piano is followed by the realization that as often as not you hit the wrong note. You know which note you’re supposed to hit – that’s the discovery stage, the “oh, wow, I’m great stage” – but you can’t seem to do it. And that’s where you hit the obstacle. Playing piano is stupid anyhow.

The plateau is you putting in those 10 000 mythical hours to become a creative god.

And it’s completely natural. Development isn’t a linear thing. It is like warfare: short burst of terrifying excitement between long stretches of boredom. If you graph out development and learning you don’t get a curve, you get a staircase. Discovery – plateau – discovery – plateau.

Discovery – boredom.

Always get back up, Kris Rush quoteThe first plateau kills more promising careers than all other hurdles put together. It doesn’t matter if it’s game design, writing, painting or growing tomatoes, once you hit that first plateau where the excitement goes away and there’s no end in sight 90 percent of the people will quit.

Maybe not at first, maybe not at second either. Maybe they’ll keep fingering Twinkle-twinkle for a few days (no, not like that, this is a family friendly blog) but then they’ll quit. The motivation to push through that first plateau isn’t there because they’ve forgotten what got them excited about the thing in the first place.

That is the danger. Not that you’re lazy, not that you lack skill but that you forget what got you excited.

You need to keep remembering it. You need to remember that awesome feeling of sky splitting greatness you felt when things were looking up and that twinkling star was the greatest thing in the world.

Don’t concentrate on the absence of fish, focus on the feeling of seeing your lure fly true. See if you can’t make it fly truer, further, longer. Play with it (beware of the hooks though). Make it land where you want it to. Enjoy the weather, or the silence, or the inane chatter of that balding Australian insisting on standing next to you with his watered down beer and scaring away all the fish. Whatever it takes to make you keep trudging along that plateau, find it.

Because when you least expect it that giant bass will strike and your lure will disappear and you’ll be all “where did it go dude” and then there’s that giant splash on the surface and your line just whirs away from the reel and your heart is hammering and it’s the greatest day in your entire life.

Congratulations, you’ve reached your next discovery phase.

Remember that feeling, remember where you were, what you were doing. Be proud of it, not many people reach it (BTW it took me 28 years to finally catch something on spin fishing – but I wasn’t very good at plateauing). Then go back to practicing.

Yes, the discovery won’t last. Behind it is your next plateau, but one at a higher level. You’ve reached your next stop on your journey. Enjoy the view then go right back to practicing.

Don’t quit. It’s always easiest to quit right before your next discovery. That’s when the plateau feels endless, when you’ve forgotten your discovery and all you’re remembering is the endless plodding.

Pull yourself up, girl, you’re about to break through the plateau. The plateau is giving you what you need to skyrocket again. The plateau is what gives you your skill, your career.

So remember the discovery but cherish the plateau. Throw that lure, weed those weeds, clonk on that piano. Write. Design. That’s the only way you’ll ever get seriously better at your craft.

That’s the only way you’ll succeed.

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