At some point, we’ve all likely given up on trying to get better at a skill and settled for being mediocre as opposed to being great. But why do we do this? Why don’t we push on until we achieve mastery?
Let’s say you want to play the piano. In the beginning, it’s quite rewarding. You start to take lessons and notice immediate progress. Your teacher comments on your talent and you see it being actualized into skill on a consistent basis with seemingly little skill. You pick up the elementary aspects in no time. But then the rate of progress diminishes. Improvement becomes harder and harder.
This is where perseverance matters.
In their book, Human Performance, psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner call this stage of skill mastery the autonomous phase.
The only thing that is going to get someone who is proficient out of their plateau is to isolate some small component that needs improvement and concentrate there.
“If you’re myopic and only look at the next moment in time and you base your decisions on ‘what am I going to get out of this in the next nanosecond’ versus ‘what do I have to put into this in the next nanosecond,’ then when you hit a plateau, your natural conclusion is to quit and move to the next thing. If you’re able to think about things in much bigger chunks, you can make good long-term choices and investments of your effort and time.”
— Angela Duckworth
This deliberate practice approach relies on something called “augmented feedback,” from expert coaches. It’s how a good golfer turns great – a hundred more rounds of golf likely won’t improve their skill level but sessions with a pro that focus on a nit in their swing will. It’s how a skilled pianist turns into a master.
Johannes Eichstaedt, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (and a collaborator of Angela Duckworth), believes that human achievement is the function of a set of variables.
“We think about achievement, skill and talent sort of like distance traveled, velocity and acceleration,” says Eichstaedt, in The Plateau Effect.
“We think about achievement, skill and talent sort of like distance travelled, velocity and acceleration,” he says. In his model, achievement can be thought of as the sum of all your accomplishments. This is a value that never decreases and is constantly building over time. Skill is velocity, the rate at which achievement is attained. Someone who is a highly skilled golfer for example will accumulate achievement (such as tournaments won) at a much faster rate than an amateur. The golf pro is travelling down the freeway of achievement at 90 mph in a Maserati while the amateur pedals along on a bicycle. Eichstaedt sees talent as acceleration, the rate at which skill increases. Think of it as achievement potential. To continue on the car metaphor, a Maserati has a much higher capacity for speed than a bicycle (even if Lance Armstrong is pedaling it).
To get an increase in skill you multiply talent by units of time using deliberate practice. The less talent the harder you have to work.
“That’s where people are a little different in terms of their talent, and then it’s a function of time on task that actualizes talent into skill,” Eichstaedt says.
This is where grit comes in.
Gritty people put in the effort to move from talent to skill and then from skill to achievement. This model may also help explain why people with high IQ’s (akin to talent in Eichstaedt’s model) can become skilled with little effort but also how people with an average IQ through the hard work of focused effort can get to the same skill level. The model underscores why then it is so important to teach grittiness to children (and adults).
According to Eichstaedt, Ericsson, Duckworth and others, it is this combination of potential and tenacious pursuit of one’s goal that is the hallmark of consistently high achievers. What is interesting about this model is that it has a heavy dependence on “time on task” – meaning that if a person is able to marshal all their skills of concentration and focus, they can control the most dominant factor in their own success: time spent working on a task.
How we plateau
A plateau then can come from a few different places: we can either stop putting in the effort – the time on task – to turn skill into accomplishment, or we can exhaust our talent. “At some point we run out of that potential to be actualized into skill through focused effort and we plateau.”
It’s at this point that people settle into an equilibrium that is comfortable.
Most people are happy to be a mediocre plus keyboard player or typist. According to Eichstaedt, at some point many people prefer to focus on turning the skill that they’ve acquired into accomplishment instead of focusing on turning their talent into additional skill. For the occasional pianist that might mean learning to play a few intricate pieces.
“Further skill development beyond the exhaustion of their talent potential tends to be not as rewarding,” Eichstaedt says.
What are the biggest barriers to doing great things?
“I think the biggest barriers to doing great things are not cataclysmic events that require heroic action. It’s more important to focus on incremental effort and results than the heroic acts that typically get the lion’s share of the attention,” Angela Duckworth argues in The Plateau Effect.