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3 Tips on Overcoming Learning Plateaus from David Foster Wallace

First you hate the plateau, then you get used to the plateau, and finally, you need the plateau.

As David Foster Wallace wrote in his novel “Infinite Jest,” the path to genuine mastery of your craft is “slow, frustrating. Humbling. A question of less talent than temperament.” That’s because the journey of improvement is not a linear progression where one success builds upon the next. Rather, “you proceed toward mastery through a series of plateaus, so there’s like radical improvement up to a certain plateau and then what looks like a stall.”

When you’re stalled on a plateau, you’re in a state of suspended animation—or even regression—for an indefinite period of time. Meanwhile it seems like everyone around you keeps climbing higher and higher, leaving you behind. How you handle those plateaus, psychologically, will determine whether you remain stalled there forever. It’s emotionally trying, and you’ll want to give up.

In several passages from the aforementioned Infinite Jest, a tennis coach cautions his pupils on three psychological traps that are essential to avoid in continuing to improve toward tennis mastery, moving from one plateau to the next. Using these passages from Wallace, we can explore the three plateaus that can stagnate growth, and reveal how to overcome them.  Whether you’re playing tennis or improving mastery of your own craft, navigating these plateaus is essential to unlocking your full potential.

Plateau 1: Stick With It

“You’ve got … your Despairing type, who’s fine as long as he’s in the quick-improvement stage before a plateau, but then he hits a plateau and sees himself seem to stall, not getting better as fast or even seeming to get a little worse, and this type gives in to frustration and despair, because he hasn’t got the humbleness and patience to hang in there and slog, and he can’t stand the time he has to put in on plateaux, and what happens?”

“Geronimo!” the other kids yell, not quite in sync.

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

This is often your first stop on your journey to mastery, and it can be a shock to the system. It’s when you begin to realize that you won’t be an exceptional, overnight success—and that mastery is a long way off. It’s when you realize that overnight successes actually take years and years.

Progress junkies seeking short-term gratification give up, and that’s why success turns more on character than it does on talent. University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth argues in The Plateau Effect that “if you’re myopic and only look at the next moment in time and you base your decisions on ‘what am I going to get out of this in the next nanosecond?’ … then when you hit a plateau, your natural conclusion is to quit and move on to the next thing.” But “if you’re able to think about things in much bigger chunks, you can make good long-term choices and investments of your effort and time.”

Success turns more on character than it does on talent.

It’s “grit”, not aptitude or talent, that plays the biggest role in your success. Duckworth defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them . . . . [T]he gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

In a study of 1,200 West Point cadets before the beginning of basic training, Duckworth measured cadets based on her grittiness index and grittier candidates were 60 percent more likely to make it through training.

Be gritty, and stick with it.

Plateau 2: Practice Deliberately

“You’ve got your Obsessive type … so eager to plateau-hop he doesn’t even know the word patient, much less humble or slog, when he gets stalled at a plateau he tries to like will and force himself off it, by sheer force of work and drill and will and practice, drilling and obsessively honing and working more and more, as in frantically, and he overdoes it and gets hurt, and pretty soon he’s all chronically messed up with injuries, and he hobbles around on the court still obsessively overworking, until finally he’s hardly even able to walk or swing, and his ranking plummets.”— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered what’s now known as the “spacing effect.” Ebbinghaus studied gibberish words and showed that his ability to learn and recall those words improved dramatically when he spaced his study session out over time. It’s intuitive to any student who has crammed for an exam and then immediately forgot everything. It’s the phenomenon that your ability to learn a concept improves when you study it multiple times, spaced over a long time span rather than within a short time frame.

On the other hand, the spacing effect seems counterintuitive because it feels like and is misinterpreted by outsiders as laziness. It feels more logical to push forward with hard work, even as we see diminishing, plateauing returns, because the alternative is inaction. The spacing effect demonstrates the role patience plays, in tandem with pushing, in the way our minds learn and improve.

The fact remains that to improve, we need rest and rejuvenation, a connection seen in not just the spacing effect but elsewhere, such as the strong link between sleep and productivity. The risk in impatience and the refusal to slog and pause is not only plateauing results, it’s also the increased exposure to injury and burnout as we push harder and harder, from which it may take a long time to recover.

Don’t push too hard, no matter how tempting it might be.

Plateau 3: Embrace Discomfort

“Then [there’s] maybe the worst type, because it can cunningly masquerade as patience and humble frustration. You’ve got the Complacent type, who improves radically until he hits a plateau, and is content with the radical improvement he’s made to get to the plateau, and doesn’t mind staying at the plateau because it’s comfortable and familiar, and he doesn’t worry about getting off it, and pretty soon you find he’s designed a whole game around compensating for the weaknesses and chinks in the armor the given plateau represents in his game, still—his whole game is based on this plateau now.

And little by little, guys he used to beat start beating him, locating the chinks of the plateau, and his rank starts to slide, but he’ll say he doesn’t care, he says he’s in it for the love of the game, and he always smiles but there gets to be something sort of tight and hangdog about his smile, and he always smiles and is real nice to everybody and real good to have around but he keeps staying where he is while other guys hop plateaux, and he gets beat more and more, but he’s content.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

It starts with acclimation. First you hate the plateau, then you get used to the plateau, and finally, you need the plateau.

The plateau doesn’t feel like a plateau any longer—something foreign and uncomfortable. Instead that flat line becomes the new normal. This happens more easily than you might expect because of the way our brain adapts to stimulus.

If you’ve experienced walking into a subway in the summer, you’ve noticed how a musky, stinky odor will hit your nose quite strongly at first but within a few minutes you’ll hardly notice it. This happens through a process called olfactory fatigue, which is a kind of neural adaptation. Your sensory neurons respond immediately when exposed to new stimuli but that responsiveness decreases with continual exposure to the stimuli at a constant intensity—your mind and body actually go numb.

First you hate the plateau, then you get used to the plateau, and finally, you need  the plateau.

To get things going again, you need exposure to new stimuli, but there’s where the rub is. Trying something new may not only fail to make you better, it might actually make you worse. In fact, you’re likely to get worse before you get better.

The problem is that getting better means putting at risk what you’ve already gained, and that butts up against a powerful human bias of preferring to avoid losses over acquiring gains, called “loss aversion.” It’s an extremely potent bias, too. In a study offering a gamble on a 50/50 coin toss where an individual might lose $20, those people demanded at least a $40 payoff if they won, suggesting people irrationally require gains of twice the amount that they could potentially lose.

The perniciousness of loss aversion is that, to outside observers, it looks like you’re doing it the right way—plugging away steadily and diligently—when in reality, your decision-making is driven by a deep-seated fear of losing what you have. As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, put it, to break through the status quo with a pioneering innovation, you must reject that external validation and have “a willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” That means pursuing mastery for itself, not for outside approval or self-preservation.

Try new things, and be willing to get worse.


The topography of success contains all manner of planes and gradients. It’s easy to see how getting to the peak of a mountain requires you to scale its steepest inclines. What’s not as obvious, but just as integral, is that you must make the journey across the stretching plateaus as well—with grit, respite, and exploration.

How about you?

How have you persevered and made the slow, frustrating climb to mastery?

Comments (28)
  • David Torres

    I appreciate this article and its timing. Now I know what I am facing and now have tips to over come it. “a willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time.” That means pursuing mastery for itself, not for outside approval or self-preservation.
    Probably my favorite quote of this article. At the end of the day I do it for my self-mastery. Thank you 99u

    • Walter Chen

      I’m really glad to hear that, David.

  • bradykimball

    ‘How have you persevered and made the slow, frustrating climb to mastery?”

    I’ve always found the fastest and most effective way to move forward is to learn from people who have gone before me. There are a lot of smart people in the fields I work within, so I try to research information from those who have been successful. I’ll look for common themes or attributes that is explored, write them down as keywords, then research those keywords for more in depth information on the concept or theme.

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • Chatman Richmond Jr.

    I’ve been learning web design since my senior year in college. I learned a ton by standing on the shoulders of giants. When I’ve hit a plateau, I find it helps to pivot. I started out building high-fidelity comps in Photoshop and banking on my skills in that area, but when I hit a road block I decided to further my skills by learning HTML & CSS and how to slice comps and transfer to a finished product.

    When I hit another bottleneck in design, I pivoted and learned about designing in the browser, which unlocked a completely different skill set. In addition to the skills I already had, I learned about JavaScript and jQuery. Most of my growth has come from approaching familiar problems in new ways, and it furthered my understanding of both the new and familiar context. I went from loving the certainty that comes from building templates in Photoshop to embracing beauty in code and designing within the browser.

    Staying up to date and not fighting change within the industry kept my knowledge fresh and my enthusiasm high, even through those periods of drudgery. It’s as David says: sheer love for your craft will push you to learn what you need to do it well. Internal motivation holds strong where external rewards may falter.

    • Walter Chen

      that’s awesome, chatman. that’s a journey i recognize well as a web developer myself.

  • Rob Hanna

    Hi Walter,

    Interesting read. My personal experience and observations towards achieving mastery have diverged a little bit along the path of daily practice:

    1. Plateaus in progress are rhetorical narratives: if they’re helpful mental constructs to sustain your daily practice, cool. If not, no need to anticipate or consider them. It’s much more preferable to leave any practice for awhile if it gets stale and then come back to it fresh.

    2. Grit, grinding, pain for gain and all other negative observations may be factual about people who undertake less efficient methods of learning progress and decide to soldier on, for example:

    I could train anyone to get from LA to NYC on their hands and knees, but I’d rather teach them how to drive…

    But more often than not this has more to do with less competent teachers who don’t know the better options giving the instruction, or competent teachers obscuring the better options in order to keep their student’s tuition running, or the master of a craft being simply incapable of conveying their personal insights in ways others can understand and grasp them.

    3. Good practice towards mastery doesn’t require suffering and inefficiencies to achieve progress as part of the learning recipe–and that’s the litmus test of true masters:

    Those who can make any learning path self-evident and accessible to their students, wherever their abilities lie in the moment.

    May you eat well, rest easy and train simple!

    • Walter Chen

      hey rob, thanks for sharing.

      i think the notion of the plateau resonates with most peoples’ observations and experience, and so they’re very useful to consider.

      i don’t think grit is necessarily a negative frame. to me, it’s largely about considering a long-term perspective on progress and improvement.

      • Rob Hanna

        Walter, I agree with anything that resonates with people and is helpful to them, so in that regard I support your original points made whole-heartedly. There are really no negative frames whenever they enable people to achieve progress towards what they truly desire. I also suspect you’re correct in how your points are accessible to many people today.

        A more circumspect way for me to have shared my perspective would have been to suggest there’s an entire continuum of options towards mastery, perhaps even infinitely so. And among whatever limited view each of us might individually regard our own options, or those of others, there inevitably arises multiple choices that appear in direct contradiction to each other.

        Among such diversity it is safe to say that none are more important nor more correct than others–there are only those options that are more or less fit for the current abilities of any individual. Each of us can be ambitious to charge ourselves, and so too we can also be ambitious about how we choose to change. Therefore it’s not unusual to expect and accept contradictory options along the way as they better fit our evolving abilities–so in turn what was negative becomes positive and vice versa–at least to any static perspective.

        Anything is good for as long as it gets you to where you want to go. Yet the path of mastery includes upgrading the embrace of one awareness for another, and at each turn that means learning to leave some previous consistencies behind.

  • davidangelo85

    Love the article Walter! I’m closest to the first type. Definitely need to improve on my ‘grit’.

    • Walter Chen

      thanks, david!

  • Scott McLay Forbes

    I was very appreciative of this article as it covered more than one way to look at those dreaded plateaus. I learned more from reading about the other two types than just my own. I’m the third type right now, but I’ve noticed various problems with other types at different times. I thought this article was well-written and informative. So thank you for sharing. It was helpful.

  • cetriya

    I tend to be a mix of all three. when I ‘plateau’ or ‘burn out’ I give my self a resting period and start from scratch but from a different angle. after all, an artist can never be perfect so there’s plenty of challenges I can address or I can mix things up. If I feel that I’ve ‘plateau’ with digital art, I’ll switch to traditional and back and forth as each informs the other. Some times it takes just doing something else that is close enough to help with the main problem (like reading or studying storyboards with help with writing or writing in a different genere).

  • Sandy Archer

    Thanks for a very timely message. When creating something out of nothing and having no frame of reference, you have to let go of what you know and try something that you don’t – ‘unlearn’ and give it a go!

  • Aaron Morton

    Something I find is a great metaphor for this is weight training. When you start lifting weights, say a bench press, its all about finding your optimal weight. Its hard at first, especially those last 2 reps.

    But in order to get better and be able to lift more, you have to keep bench pressing until what you once felt really hard is now actually quite easy. Your body has adapted to the weight.

    Now it takes the grit to go back to square 1 and start feeling uncomfortable again in order to progress and lift more!

    The Confidence Lounge

  • growthguided

    Brilliant post. Thank you for putting this together for us!

  • anirudh w

    good post.timely one for me.

  • Nancy

    Your article is very thought provoking… however, the irony is that David Foster Wallace,a BRILLIANT and prolific young writer, ended his life before we ever knew if he conquered the mountains… we will never know if he persevered and made the slow, frustrating climb to mastery… this is a very insightful subject. Thank you for the post!

  • Ryan

    Excellent thoughts, Walter. I love this analogy.

  • Terri

    Really appreciated this article. Will share it with my students. Thank you!

  • 8lackie Ray

    Excellent and pithy

  • Drew

    Very intriguing. I would have like to see some practical application of these ideas, but I have a feeling that I will be reminded of this article when I hit my plateau in my creative work. And that will be all the practical application I’ll need…

  • Matthew

    The concept of the “20 Mile March” illustrated in Jim Collins book “Great By Choice” is a very tangible example of the message shared here. Very interesting book although it does beat it’s message to death a little. That being said it does seem to be a message that is very easy to understand but much more difficult to effectively employ… Great post!

  • Stan

    Awesome refreshing life-changing affirming no-nonsense article!

  • Walter Chen

    i’m glad that the article triggered the connection for you, aaron. it’s always interesting to hear how these patterns play out in different contexts.

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