Getting off the intermediate plateau

If you’ve ever learned a skill to a high level (advanced, expert, rockstar, etc. are labels that are often used) and stopped to think about the experience, you might draw a graph that looks like this:

Skill versus Time: the inevitable plateau.

Skill versus Time: the inevitable plateau. (Thanks to Anna Czoski for creating this.)

I think most people have experienced this in some shape or form. I think I’ve experienced this enough times to form some thoughts about what is universal about skill-learning. Today I want to explore those common elements and in a later post I’m going to propose some ways I think learning can be improved based on those commonalities.

If you’re wondering, I’ve struggled through – or am still in – this  ‘intermediate plateau’ in:

  • salsa
  • tango
  • guitar
  • piano
  • most computing languages – my most recent, Ruby

At first, almost all people have an easy time learning a skill; you get better, exponentially, and there’s a tight feedback loop, because the improvements are very visible and very easy to feel – your frustration level drops quickly. With sufficient time, you become intermediate; “good”, but not “great”; an average sized fish in the pond.

This is when things get hard. Does this sound familiar?

  • You’re good enough: You can accomplish enough things to ‘get by’, but you don’t execute as well as advanced peers or experts
  • You don’t know how to improve: the lessons or classes that you found great as a beginner don’t seem to be useful anymore
  • Your peers are other intermediates: whether you’re coding with others, dancing socially, or jamming with friends, you feel comfortable performing with other intermediates. But when you have the rare opportunity to engage with an expert or advanced peer, you feel nervous, out of your depth, uncomfortable; unable to keep up.
All of this should should familiar. But why do people end up in a long, drawn out plateau where their skills don’t grow? Here’s what I think are the key reasons intermediates “get stuck”:
  • Less incentive to improve: Intermediates know how to do enough to be successful; that might be having fun with others, or being able to build the average RoR website, or complete work items assigned at work. Beginners find everything frustrating; so they don’t have an option of doing the ‘fun thing’. But intermediates find some things frustrating and some things fun. They avoid the frustrating things: it’s human nature. For example, intermediate skiiers complain they can’t do black diamond runs well, yet when asked what they ski, they predominantly ski blue runs. The thing, then, is to:
    1. Do what is hard; don’t perfect what is easy.
  • Beginner teachers are unlikely to be good intermediate teachers. There is a lot of material out there for beginners. First, there is a monetary incentive: there’s lots of beginners and high turnover. Second, the level of skill required to teach beginners is low: so instructors are easier to train and teaching material easier to create. But beginners don’t realize they need different teaching once they become intermediates. They gain little value from continued investment (in time and money), and eventually become frustrated and quit lessons or structured learning. So:

    2. Intermediates desperately need high quality teaching methods and materials, and their needs are very different from beginners.

  • No role models or mentors: Beginners spend a lot of time with other beginners but also intermediate peers; in other words, they ‘peer up’. Intermediates more often ‘peer down’: that is, they spend a lot of time with other beginners and intermediates, but not with advanced folks. Without such direct, high bandwidth interaction, intermediates have difficulty understanding where they need to improve. Simple time, however, is rarely enough. Structured feedback is required: oftentimes, advanced practitioners are so good at what they dothey consciously or even subconsciously workaround the problems intermediates exhibit.  So:
    3. Intermediates need advanced role models and mentors to improve.

Now, if all of this seems obvious and trite restatements, apologies. You’ve likely been thinking about this problem just as much as I have. I realized this post is quite long, so I’ve split it into two parts. In the next part, I’ll actually get into the meat of this post-series: how I propose we can improve the educational / learning experience by systematically attacking each of these 3 points I’ve outlined.

4 thoughts on “Getting off the intermediate plateau

  1. I think the reality of it is, there are plateaus everywhere along the way to expertise. Some longer than others. You just have to push through every one of them and expect them as a fact of life if you want to get good at something. Much, MUCH easier said than done, of course.

  2. SteveA, I totally agree. The most important plateau, for me, is the first one. The reason why? Because once you can work through that one, you start to build skills and experience at working through plateaus – a kind of meta-learning – so that the NEXT time around, you’re much more capable at dealing with the plateau, and you don’t quit or become discouraged.

  3. I completely agree. I think you’re correct that the ability of your peers has a much greater impact than structured learning after the beginner phase.

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