Andromeda/Your Turn: The Dreaded Plateau

Learning curve, imagined versus actual (from Polygot Dream blog)
I’m going to keep this short, because I’d really prefer it
to be a conversation. The question is: How do you bust through learning
plateaus? Not how do you learn something as a beginner, but how do you keep
learning when you’re fairly competent, are experiencing diminishing returns,
and are finding it harder to find the tools and teachers who can guide
For context let me explain that this week I started my
fourth round of in-country Spanish lessons in a year. I started out at a lower
intermediate level. I’m now somewhere at the upper intermediate level, having
logged 500 study hours in Spanish. (I no longer believe in “fluency” as a simple concept. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that “proficiency” is relative, situational, and even controversial.) That last step, from upper intermediate to
advanced is a tricky one, and once again, I’m finding that teachers at this
level don’t always know what to do with students who aren’t beginners. Today, I spent two stimulating hours talking about everything from circus arts to minimalist decor with my Mexican teacher, and I could understand her perfectly. But could I express myself completely? Absolutely not. 
Think of something you do well. Maybe you write seriously
and have published and even garnered positive reviews in big places. Maybe you’ve
taught for ten years and feel comfortable in the classroom. Maybe you’ve run a
bunch of marathons, are fitter than 90% of people your age, and have a good
idea of how to train.  Maybe you cook
meals that occasionally astound your family and friends.
Now what?
I’ve been surfing the internet and reading, and come up with
only a few answers.
Establish new goals: be specific.
Mix it up. Come at your subject/activity from a new direction.
Find a new source of motivation.
Find a new teacher.
Learn how to coach your own coach better.
Those tips are good, but a little colorless.
I’m asking you to think about what you used to do pretty
well, and what you now do much better. How do you move from good to great, or
from slightly frustrated to really excited and fulfilled? You may have answers
from the world of writing, or from other places—sports, plant identification,
you name it.

How did you break through a learning barrier? I’d love to hear your story.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of the forthcoming novel, Behave (March 2016), an Indie Next pick. She is also a book coach and teaches in the UAA MFA program

4 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: The Dreaded Plateau”

  1. As usual, I love where your mind is going, Andromeda. (And I'm very envious of your language learning.)

    Here's my take on your question. I don't gravitate toward lists of things to do. I tend to tune them out. But I do know that any steps in competency or artfulness are for me, subtle ones, rarely connected to specific tasks or tips. Immersion is the word that keeps coming to mind. In your example of the language teacher, I'd see your next jump happening in an intangible way–you keep up those long conversations about everything you can think of, and you listen, and you think about them later. Perhaps you follow up or research something that caught your attention. You do this for weeks, sometimes frustrated by a lack of "progress." Then, one day, you'll realize you can express something you couldn't two weeks ago. You didn't study any more vocabulary, or diagram your teacher's sentences. The content infiltrated at a deeper, subtler level and you grew into it.

    I've had this happen with all kinds of things–cooking without recipes, telemark skiing, many aspects of writing. I find that if I am open and curious and put myself out there without a lot of judgement, I naturally get better. There's something in there about the "million hours to expertise" idea, and the "setting an intention invites a change" notion, but really, it transcends a phrase. I have to stop watching myself. It implies a trustfulness and receptivity (which I see as an active state, not a passive one.)

    I can relate utterly to the urge to evaluate yourself, though. (Witness countless ski-wrecks where I lie face down in powder and moan, "when am I ever going to be awesome?") I think that's why I'm so compelled by the opposite, less progress-oriented track. When I can trust that, it's really freeing.
    Thanks for the invitation to think this through with you!

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for your thoughts, Christine! I'm struck by your sentences here: "I have to stop watching myself. It implies a trustfulness and receptivity."

    As for the frustration of seemingly slow (or absent) progress — THAT I can relate to.

  3. Great conversation here. With Spanish, I found that if I read novels in Spanish, I could understand more and intuitively improve my grammar. But with speaking, I just kept practicing in different stations as you are, Andromeda, and finally started to sound more fluent. (Although I was never brilliant, and probably lost most of that ability when I stopped using it, it got me further from beginning-level.)

    In other areas, like writing or teaching, I gave myself goals/areas to improve and found mentors or teachers to help me get to the next stage. But it's not always that straightforward. It can take a lot longer than I'd like. And like Christine's experience, sometimes it's more about intention and keeping my mind open.

    I don't know if this is due to the way the learning brain works, or creativity, or something else. Maybe it's just that life isn't as simple as we'd like to make it.

  4. Find someone whose life is brutal but who is persevering and give them what you are looking for. That was my first thought which may not have any relevance here but which did work for me.

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