September 29

Progress: One Step Forward, Two Steps onto a Plateau

Steven Wright aptly described the word progress when he said, "I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done." 

Progress journeys

From the time we’re born until we die, life, for most of us, is an incessant search for progress. The details vary.

As toddlers, walking a few feet without falling flat on our butts is progress.

Consistently balancing work and family obligations without getting fired from either or losing one’s mind is what we’d consider progress in our mid-lives.

And, as we age, all we hope for again is to walk without falling flat on our butts.

Life has a sense of humor, especially as it relates to “progress journeys.” The trick to avoiding disappointment and frustration is to realize that the path to progress is not always a continuous upward slope. It’s a series of hills and valleys, often involving periods of rapid advancement followed by plateaus, where we seem stuck in one place.

The cycle of progress

Anyone who has ever started a new exercise program or tried a new diet—roughly 99.99% of the people who read this article—knows the feeling. The first weeks are hard. You are achy or hungry and feel like your body or mind (or both) will explode for being asked to perform such ridiculous feats. A few weeks in, though, it gets easier, and that’s when you start to see results.

You appreciate that low-carb diet does not mean eating carbs when you feel low. You can run faster, lift easily, or eat a green salad and still feel satiated. Your enthusiasm is infectious. You feel on top of the world, ready to share your success story with the world, and maybe even contemplate starting a podcast or at least a family WhatsApp lecture series on how to get fit and lose weight.

But just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, you stop seeing the results. You can’t seem to run any faster or lift more. The weighing scale refuses to budge lower, even after you change the batteries twice. Like a car running out of fuel, your progress stalls.

You hit a plateau. And that can be disheartening and bring on a flurry of FOMO and make you question every single life choice you ever made. Like the time you chose to drink seltzer instead of the vintage Chateau Rothschild at the company holiday party. What did I sacrifice all that for, you wonder?!

Why we plateau

Plateaus aren’t just life’s way of reminding us how unfair and cruel it can be. There are legitimate, natural reasons for us to plateau.

Loss of interest or burnout

According to a research study, most popular diets stop working after 12 months because people are too bored and lose interest in the program—the “Life is too short not to eat bread” philosophy. Too much of any activity, without adequate rest and respite, can lead to burnout by making the undertaking feel like a chore.

Unrealistic expectations

Policy scholar Marian L. Tupy warns about utopian idealism.

“Utopians compare the present with what might be called the future perfect, not the past imperfect. Instead of seeing the present as a vast improvement on the past, they see the present as failing to live up to some sort of an imagined utopia.”

Managing the weight of our own expectations is essential for progress of any kind.

Beyond a point, progress is gradual and less apparent

For a new runner, the difference between not being able to run at all to completing a mile-long run can be transformative. But the difference between being able to run continuously for 40 minutes instead of 30 may not be so earth-shattering and barely noticeable. It’s still progress.

Since obsessing over quick results is unrealistic, finding ways to recognize and appreciate even tiny improvements can help us plow through our plateaus.

But first, we must accept a fundamental truth about progress journeys—that progress is neither linear nor inevitable.

Progress is not linear

Keep in mind that progress is not always linear. It takes constant course correcting and often a lot of zigzagging. Unfortunate things happen, accidents occur, and setbacks are usually painful, but that does not mean we quit. Buzz Aldrin.

Embarking on any project or self-improvement journey expecting to get better steadily is a recipe for disaster. Actual progress is neither fast nor linear. Plateaus and even regression are natural.

We don’t and will never know what the future holds, but that does not mean we find every plateau disheartening. Embracing this liminality—the not knowing whether you’re progressing or regressing or just stuck—is an art in itself, especially as Mitt Ridley writes in The Rational Optimist, the world adores pessimism.

If… you say catastrophe is imminent, you may expect a McArthur genius award or even the Nobel Peace Prize. The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to the implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad‐cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex‐change fish, global warming, ocean acidification and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist.

The Art of Embracing Plateaus

Before we understand how to embrace plateaus, we must realize that not all progress journeys follow the same curve. For this, I recommend reading author Scott Young’s very informative blog post on growth and how it is anything but linear.

Young explains how, in some areas, such as athletic performance, novices grow far quicker than elites because the better you get, the harder it is to improve. On the contrary, if you were to build a business, the first few years are likely to be a slog as you lay the groundwork and develop products and customers. Then, once the business is established, it has the potential for exponential growth.

The bottom line is that growing pains are always part of the process, and plateaus are natural checkpoints for reflection. The wisdom lies in knowing how to embrace uncertainty and realize what kind of growth curve you are on.


“I don’t want to get better at playing the piano, spending time with family, making more money, or <insert your own example here>,” said no one ever. But the moment we stop seeing progress, it is easy to get disheartened and give up on the project or chase another shiny object.

When you feel you are stagnating, remind yourself that plateaus are not roadblocks but checkpoints. You will not hit a new personal record every time you run. Or make a million dollars on every investment. But as long as you keep reflecting and course-correcting, you will continue to grow.

In the land of the quick fix, it may seem radical, but to learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau, to keep practicing even when it seems you are getting nowhere. George Leonard.

The mantra to remember is this:

Growth is neither linear nor inevitable—plateaus and patience are the pillars on which progress stands.



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