The Process of Improvement
plateaus... plateaus everywhere

Improvement is a rather interesting topic, because it's something that is often paired with words like "talent", "hustle", or whatever other buzz words people go on about. It's also a process that is strange, almost enigmatic, because of the variability of how fast people improve, why we often hit walls where we stop improving, etc.

Since I'm trying to improve creating art and I'm currently in a plateau of skill, I've been thinking a lot about improvement as a whole and there were a couple of things that I've realized over the past few years of trying to improve in other skills, so that is what I want to cover in this particular article.

Welcome to the Flatlands

Our intuition typically favours modeling everything linearly, improvement included. Very little things in nature ever grow linearly (or any model representing nature really), and yet it still feels like the only way we grasp things.

This is probably why plateaus don't make any sense, and they really don't. It's like you're always trying to push your skill, and nothing is budging, and then suddenly you hit successive breakthroughs and now you've leveled up. There is this sort of lag between your brain intaking something and properly internalizing it. Improvement is something that takes months to show itself.

I was reminiscing on the days where I used to play osu! (there is some extra background in this article) and I realized that the performance system in that game is an excellent representation of improvement.

Since osu! marks your plays with a numerical value, you can plot all of your best plays in a single graph and that'll show how much you improved over time. When I got a graph of all of my significant plays in the game, it became very obvious that improvement very much consists of plateaus and peaks:

progression over 2 years of playing. red line was added by me

This makes plateaus less of an abstract concept and more of a reality. In the plateau periods I consistently played the game outside of my comfort zone, and yet it wasn't until a few months later where I finally hit a breakthrough and got many top plays. And the process would repeat itself, over and over again.

Though this is how our brain works in terms of reaching mastery, it still doesn't make intuitive sense, to me at least. You could be learning tons of new things, practically living outside your comfort zone, and yet it takes a few months to get the results? It's so strange, and yet it's how our brain assimilates and improves its abilities.

Enjoying the Process

The thing which really struck me, and I'll always remember this: how my attitude shifted when I subconsciously realized this.

I remember in the first significant plateau period (2015-2016) I was sick of playing the game. Well, it's the typical response to stagnation: "I'm not cut out for this sort of thing", "I'm not talented enough", etc. I still played the game, but I wasn't really having fun with it, so I took frequent breaks (days, sometimes even weeks) in between play sessions.

However, after the second peak in 2016, I had a change of mindset: have fun. I played maps stupidly outside my comfort zone, and though I stumbled like nobody's business, I was having a great amount of fun doing it. I worked on skillsets that I was extremely weak at (accuracy being the number one culprit) and I just played the game for the sake of playing the game. "Pls enjoy game" is the osu! national motto, and I literally took it to heart.

The thing with this is that though the length of the skill plateau didn't get shorter, having fun technically made it "shorter". It's a well known phenomenon that enjoyment completely changes our perception of time, making it feel like it's going much faster. Though I was in a skill plateau, it felt like a shorter amount of time before I reached the next peak in 2017, despite the fact that I had "stagnated" for the same amount of time as 2015.

Really, that's the only real way to break out of a skill plateau: push your abilities and enjoy doing it. Experiment, mess around, do what makes you really struggle. The time it takes to get to the next peak is going to be long, so might as well enjoy yourself along the way.

Setting Expectations

With all of this, I realized something that I had not even considered, but it's something so important: don't expect results when you're outside your comfort zone.

In fact, it's not really fair to yourself to try and make your best work while you're still trying to improve your abilities. A company doesn't make their best product while they're in the middle of the research and development phase. Musicians and athletes train and practice for hours upon hours until the big day when it's time to perform. All of one's training culminates into a small period where you make your best work. And then after the peak period is over, it's back to working on one's skills again.

I think a lot of discouragement happens when we try and push ourselves too early. This happens all the time for myself: I learn something new in art and immediately try to apply it to my work and it still comes out terrible. Well of course it's going to be bad, because I haven't let my brain internalize what I've learned properly! It's going to take a couple months at least before my brain somewhat knows how to apply it to my work.

A couple of months may sound like a very long time before you get any results, which is why I made the point earlier to enjoy the process. If all of your enjoyment only comes when you start seeing results, you're going to get very discouraged.

If we chart one's enjoyment and one's improvement into one graph and have the mindset of "I'm only going to enjoy doing the work when I see results", then it becomes a rather grim sight:

You're going to be miserable for nearly 80% of the journey! That is a sign that an activity is going to be very unsustainable in the long-term. If I was miserable for 80% of the time I was making art, I probably would have quit in my first year. In fact, I nearly did quit art back in like 2015 but I barely hung on until I improved a tiny bit in 2017.

It's one thing to struggle, but it's another thing to be miserable. Any time you push your abilities you're going to struggle, but isn't that what improvement is? A continual struggle? A time of struggle doesn't necessarily have to be a time of misery, if you know how to handle your expectations.

Failure

In the process of improving, you're going to fail. A lot. That is what characterizes a plateau after all: a succession of failed launches. Work which aimed high but toppled over before it even launched. For me, I have plenty of art pieces that I've tried to make within periods of stagnation and 99% of them were absolute catastrophes. I'm slowly beginning to learn that I should really be a bit more relaxed in terms of my expectations in these times of growth.

It's in times of failure where you learn the most. I've learn more out of my failed launches than all of the pieces that I've been very happy with. I think it's because when you start creating successful work, it's moreso an application of what you learned and knowing what works. Failures are times to discover, where you find out what works and what doesn't. Where it becomes truly dangerous, however, is when you fail without even knowing it.

The worst form of stagnation is when you don't even know you've stagnated. You think everything is doing fine, so you end up not learning anything new as a result, and thus all growth screeches to a halt. I treat stagnation as a signal to let me know that it's time to start learning something new and to push myself again. For those who don't realize that they've stagnated, they may perpetuate the plateau for longer than is necessary, and in some cases, they plateau indefinitely. Now that is quite frightening.

Baby Steps

The best thing to do when it comes to improvement is to be patient. It's because we have very little control as to what's going on in the unconscious level. The best we can do is just stick to it, practice the best way that we can, and enjoy it. The well-known adage "Rome wasn't built in a day" is highly applicable in this case.

Trying to accommodate for this process of improvement is definitely different than the typical linear model for growth, but it certainly is more real than the linear model. It's also something that should allow us to be more tolerant of frustrations. I'm starting to remind myself that frustration is sign that your brain is trying to internalize something difficult. In time your brain will piece everything together and suddenly out of nowhere you start doing things that you didn't even know was possible.

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