How Plateauing Occurs: Pace vs. Potential

    Have you reached a plateau?

    Imagine you had thirty-three seconds to pick up a glass of water, take it across the room, and throw the water down the sink.

    Could you do it?


    And you wouldn’t need more than ten seconds to do the task, especially if the sink isn’t very far away. Now give that very same task to a two-year old child and watch what happens.

    Yup, kids of that age struggle with everything!

    In fact, if that toddler spilled half the contents of the glass on your carpet, you wouldn’t be overly surprised. So why does that toddler struggle so much? The reason is that the child’s brain is thinking of everything.

    Thinking? What’s bad about thinking?

    For one, it takes up a lot of energy

    When you picked up the glass, you didn’t think about it. Here’s what you did. You placed your thumb and another finger around the glass. Then the other fingers wrapped themselves mere seconds later.

    A millisecond later, your brain was able to calculate the amount of water, the possible weight of the glass and enable you to accurately lift it from the table, without thinking about it.

    This non-thinking zone is the plateau

    Imagine having to think of everything: how we drive, how we walk, how we talk—how we do almost everything we do every day.

    Our brains would quickly get overburdened with all the steps. That’s because your brain needs twice as much energy than most other cells in your body. To have to think of every action, would be like the brain having to turn on every single light in a five-bedroom house all at once.

    And that too, all the time. That’s not only tiring but also a complete waste of energy.

    So the brain makes the action as automatic as possible

    If it first needed to ‘turn on thirty lights’ to get the job done, it begins to turn on ‘fewer and fewer lights’ to get the very same task done. The task of lifting a glass and tipping the water in the sink may take ‘thirty lights’ for that two-year old, but your brain needs ‘fewer lights’ to do the same thing. And paradoxically, your learning has reached a plateau.

    The very thing that makes our lives easier also makes it miserable

    You see this when you’re teaching a course, for instance. On the cartoon course, we start off with a new assignment and there is nothing but groaning and moaning as the participants take on the task of learning.

    But about four days later, after some practice, their brain works out the mistakes and makes the task mostly automatic—especially if it’s a a small task. When we learn many such tasks and understand the sequence of these tasks, we plateau.

    So for most of us, driving a car isn’t a problem

    Most of us could be woken up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and still drive. We could be given half a bottle of wine, and yes our driving would be impaired, but we would still be able to drive. We could juggle eating a banana, scream at the kids in the background, speak on the phone—and generally be a super-hazard to ourselves and others—but still drive.

    That’s because most of the elements of the driving routine are automatic. No more learning is required unless you run into a new situation. And while this is ‘automation’ is exactly what we need, it’s also a super-curse.

    The plateau follows almost immediately

    At this point, you feel comfortable, and you stay well within that comfort zone. So for instance someone on the cartooning course, would be easily able to draw several cartoons in a space of 6-9 months of instruction.

    A cartoonist in the plateau-zone would find it hard to understand the concepts of tones, focal point, spot color, balance of vertical and horizontal, variation contrast, consistent humor, broken lines, perspective etc. The very words would put sheer fear into their brains. They would want to stick to the core of lines, emotions, possibly some perspective.

    Sure they can draw, but the process of drawing is being done without thinking. It’s second nature. Automatic.

    And that’s the plateau

    The only way to get off that plateau is to keep pushing the boundaries. As your brain slips into auto mode, enjoy the ride for a while, then go back into manual. That’s when you get smarter. But of course, this requires your brain to switch on all those ‘thirty lights’. It’s a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. So most of us head back to our automatic transmission. And that’s the difference between pace and potential.

    If you truly want to soar, you can’t go at pace forever

    You have to find your potential. Any two-year old can tell you that.

    P.S. All this nonsense about how we ‘can’t remember names, can’t draw, can’t cook, can’t dance, can’t write’ is just that: nonsense! It’s a life that’s being lived at pace, not potential. The plateau is a great place to be for most of the time, but sometimes, go up in the mountains. It’s heady up there!


    About the author:

    Sean D’Souza is a writer, marketing guru and expert on sales psychology. To read more articles by Sean, and get a very useful free report on “Why Headlines Fail”, go to

    Image: Gazing into the distance courtesy of

    About the author

      Sean D'Souza

      Sean D'Souza is a writer, marketing guru and expert on sales psychology. Read more by Sean on

    • I have walked my entire life, so walking is now an activity that is on automatic pilot. Now, it is time to challenge myself and learn another skill like how to play with computers and master technology. Thanks for the timely reminder, Sean. I am glad that I read your post. It provided food for thought. Have a good one.

    • Frank says:

      Great post, thanks a lot. Simple, clear and profound. Pls, keep doing your thing, you are great with it 🙂

    • Thanks. I need that. I am in the spill zone when it comes to writing.

    • As many of your know, I’m in the process of completely dismantling my successful blogger training, A-List Blogging, and putting it together again in a new and audacious way.

      I decided to do that because I felt that it had reached a plateau. I noticed my enthusiasm was waning and that ‘s always a danger sign.

      Now I’ve left the plateau behind and am walking towards high peaks. It’s wonderful to walk into uncharted territory and create a new map! (Of course it’s also scary to change something that’s going well…)

      I think an online business demands that we innovate regularly to keep on growing. Staying still creates a slow erosion – both of our business – and of our creativity.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Sean!

      Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor, WTD

    • Thanks for sharing. Plateaus can be insidious.

    • I can definitely relate. As a freelance writer, I know that I’m staying too long on a plateau when I don’t feel excited about new projects or clients anymore, or when I go on autopilot mode on some of my tasks.

      Like you said, the key is to head up there and continue to find new heights to reach and more challenges to overcome.

      Thanks for the great post. 🙂

    • Yes, it does feel awkward, but if you do it systematically enough, you’ll find that it’s easy to do. I like the term “inner toddler”.

      Thanks, Jenny.

    • Jenny says:

      Nice analogy, Sean! Learning new information is demanding because of all the “lightbulbs” that must be turned on in order to process new requests and respond. Just what I needed to read – this year I’m deliberately expanding my capacity with a couple of skill sets where I already have some proficiency. It’s amazing how resistant I have been to doing this work because the new things feel awkward to learn and use. Now that I realize that’s just my inner toddler requiring extra processing time, perhaps it will be easier to chuckle at my clumsiness and persist.

    • Beth Havey says:

      Great piece, backed by some researched thought and truth. The more I write a blog post, the faster, easier it becomes because I have reached a certain plateau. So in order to climb to the heights I have to challenge myself, go in a different direction and that will return me to the point where my brain can’t just go on automatic but has to work hard at each step. We all need to wake up to this! Beth

      • It does get easier, but then you need a bigger challenge. Incredible as it sounds, the brain doesn’t always like to learn new things. It only does so as a matter of “survival”. This is why as we age, we learn less, because we’re comfortable with what we know, as well as have better bank balances. This means that the brain doesn’t have to work as hard.

        And this is also why we run into trouble as we age.

        Most of us seem to buy into the fact that children learn faster than adults. The truth is, they don’t. If you spent the same time in a class learning to draw, sing, dance etc. as a child, you’d beat the child every single time—given the fact that you do the same amount of practice. But we use these excuses time and time and again and so we must rise up to that challenge.

    • Jocelyn says:

      I found this article interesting in that it also spoke to me about life living abroad. We have to use all our 30 lights on when we first move to a new country with a different culture to work within. After years(!) of living and learning we learn to do things with less lights on… and then when we return to our home cultures it requires more ‘lights on’ to navigate within what has become more foreign to us in our absence. It’s one of the major reasons why A) people are afraid to move overseas in the first place and B) some of us are nervous to return ‘home’. And then C) after a while it’s boring to live in a stable environment – in one place without the challenges of learning a new culture. So, while i agree that we must continue to push the boundaries, are there not instances in life (perhaps not in writing) where we must learn to be content without the constant challenge of massive change? Otherwise we’ll become challenge-junkies and never learn the skill of being content where we are. Somehow i think that would be miserable in the long run. Or?

      Anyway, i know this article isnt about life in general but about writing, the point of which i heartily agree with. 🙂

    • Ann Druce says:

      How’s that for a challenge for the new year! Great article.

    • MLSwift says:

      Wonderful article! Right now I’m resting on the plateau. It was a tough climb!

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