Love the Plateau.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on October 29th, 2010

Several comments on my blog about choosing a Master suggested that one could, perhaps should, choose more than one Master.  The Dalai Lama has been an exemplar for many in achieving happiness by serving others. What better model for a Coach.

In that blog I also mentioned George Leonard for his book “Mastery, the Key to Long Term Success and Fulfillment” which was the most life-changing book I’d read to that point.  Leonard became an Aikido Master after beginning study at the advanced age of 47 then spent the rest of his life writing about the lessons one can learn from practicing an exacting discipline. For me the most powerful of these was learning to “Love the Plateau.”

Leonard wrote that when we take up any new skill or discipline, we tend to experience easy, even dramatic, progress in the early stages. When the learning curve steepens and progress slows,  many of us become discouraged, lose patience or begin to press, perhaps seeking a quick fix.  But Mastery, as Leonard describes it, is the antithesis of the quick fix. If you care enough about an endeavor, it’s worth investing a  lifetime to improving it.

Those who achieve Mastery set themselves apart at this point by learning to love the plateau — to practice with complete interest, commitment, even joy, even when it seems progress has slowed or stopped. Even when we may feel as if we’re stagnating, progress or learning can still be occurring at the cellular level. (Leonard wrote this in 1991. Subsequent studies have shown that brain cells grow and adapt as a result of “deep practice” in an exacting endeavor.) After a period the cell-level learning consolidates to produce another thrilling leap. But the most important effect isn’t improvement in the skill; rather it’s the pleasure of experiencing practice as its own reward.

As zen monks say:

“What do you do on the path to Mastery? Chop wood and carry water.”

“What do you do after achieving Mastery? Chop wood and carry water?”

As TI Coaches say:

What do you do on the path to Swimming Mastery? Balance and streamline.

What do you do after achieving Swimming Mastery? Balance and streamline.

TI Coach Fiona Laughlin: Balance-and-Streamline

5 Responses to “Love the Plateau.”

  1. surfsalterpath says:

    …and propel, right?

  2. And propel, right. But I think propelling thoughts less than 20% of the time, did not begin thinking propelling thoughts until I’d worked on Balance and Streamline for over a decade (1989-2000) and always return to Balance-Streamline thoughts when I feel something off in my stroke, when my SPL is too high, or the effort is greater than the outcome.

  3. Tom Norris says:


    George Leonard was powerful presence in the human potential movement. He once was president of the Esalen Institute. He died just this last January at age 86. Thanks for reminding us of his contributions.

    Somewhere I read (I think it was in a New York Times article) that as we get older, learning takes longer; but we grasp things in a deeper more lasting and satisfying way–which could be a definition of mastery, of sorts. I learned tons of stuff for exams in college and grad school, but I just learned (or memorized) them enough to get through the final, and then they dissipated–except for those things that were intrinsically fascinating. Maybe that intrinsic fascination is a factor in mastery and loving the plateau.

    I passed the test for my Red Cross swimmers badge at age twelve or something, including a credible diving board performance–but it left no lasting mastery. That said, it did leave me with a sense of accomplishment, and I still have the circular cloth swimmers badge they awarded. As a boy, I’d seen them on the trunks of swimmers far more accomplished than me. My first swimming instructor, Peter Grigg, said I had the potential to be an athlete. Nobody else had ever said that, not even my parents. Peter’s comment, in some way, has sustained me in swimming, even during the years when I never set foot in the water. To bring it full circle, he was to me at age 8 a mentor or master. And now, you are.


  4. […] main point of my recent post Love the Plateau wasn’t that Masters love the plateau. It was that they love Practice.Those who are more […]

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