Hey, that rhymes!

Thanks to Emily H-R, Matthew P, and Chris P for helping me put this into words!
I really enjoyed the sketches in this blog post about another Plateau experience.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve last written, and they’ve been full of road trips and self doubt (not quite in that order!). It’s taken a lot of reflection and discussion with sweet friends to put a name on what I’ve been feeling. You ready for this?

I think I’ve hit a bit of a Skills Plateau.

It’s not a very fun place to be.

Here’s how I describe it:

  • things that feel “easy” are soooo easy, not very gratifying or impactful
  • things that feel “hard” are soooo hard, feel completely out of my grasp
  • feeling like someone else (who has climbed the next skills mountain) could solve the technical problems I am working on, but I “can’t”
  • not sure what the next skills mountain even is
  • don’t feel a huge sense of satisfaction/completion when finishing the hard thing because I feel guilty/shameful that it was so hard in the first place (refer to #3 above)

It’s not depression that I am feeling, although depression is a real thing (it’s not one of my mental health challenges currently, my heart is with those of you who have it). I don’t know exactly what depression feels like, but my understanding is that it feels more like “why bother?” than “BOTHER BOTHER BOTHER UGHGHGHGH WHY IS THIS SO HARD????.” Neither of these poles is where I want to be spending most of my time, but I know they are a natural part of the human condition.

If I wasn’t at a Skills Plateau, I might feel like, OHHH I’m just a bit far away from the vista on this hike, and I know I’ve climbed vistas like this before. I just need to get out that tool (my technical hiking poles? slurpy water straw backpack?), take it slow, and then I’ll see the amazing views. Plus, the next time I hike this mountain, it won’t be so hard. This, of course, assumes prior knowledge about what the needed tool is, plus access to it. That is anathema to the qualities of the Plateau.

But there is no “next vista.” The Skills Plateau is endless when I am in it. It expands vastly in every direction! I begin to forget that I’ve ever not been in the Plateau. Everything hard that I’ve learned is now easy. This experience contributes to the monotonousness of the Plateau itself. Things are either easy or impossible, there is no in between. I discount the easy as “kid stuff” and the hard stuff is obviously a personal failure. Ugh.

Temporarily using a desert metaphor, I can think of times when I experienced “mirages.” Like, a solution to my problem! Right there?!? Only to see it evaporate before my eyes.

The Plateau has no humanoid elements. It doesn’t want anything from me, it doesn’t justify its own existence, it doesn’t talk. It just is. And here I am, in it!

Another thing that’s hard about the Plateau is that it is not only boundless, but it is also continuously expanding. Sometimes I think I am close to the edge of it about to finish the difficult thing, only to find out that the edge is much, much farther away than I first thought. The “last 5%” of a project now takes equivalent to the first 50%. The sun rises, the sun sets, another day on the Plateau.

The Plateau breaks the time-space continuum. I don’t really know how much time has passed, because I am guilty of measuring time in terms of progress, not in terms of hours and minutes. There is no progress in the Plateau! You can’t tell if you are reaching “milestones” because that would infer a path and a plan which can’t exist in the Plateau.

Generally, I know what to do when I get stuck on things that are technically difficult.

  • Take a break
  • Ask for help
  • Learn a parallel skill
  • Go outside
  • Work on something I know I can accomplish
  • Connect 1:1 with someone
  • Express gratitude
  • Etc

However, the Plateau robs these things of their usefulness. Since the Plateau involves not knowing what comes next, it’s very difficult to ask for advice. Learning a parallel skill can be helpful, but which one will help the most?

It might be useful to explain in more concrete terms what I’ve been working on that has teleported me to the Plateau.

  1. Building forms that push the boundaries of the form-building-platform, which meant beefing up the form-building-platform with custom components. Some of these components required updating code, which is a skill that I barely have. Also, finding those components wasn’t obvious and required a lot of wandering in the Plateau.
  2. Creating mail merge templates and trying to figure out how to share them in an open source way. I know how to create them and I can TELL you how to make your own, but what I really want is for you to be able to install my templates into your org! I’ve followed instructions and gotten support from amazing people, but I’m still in the Plateau… it’s not working, and I don’t know how close I am to figuring it out, or if it’s even possible!
  3. Teaching people how to use the sophisticated data generation tool, Snowfakery, has reached a bit of an asymptote due to difficulty installing software and learning conceptual tools for developer-oriented collaboration. How will we teach people outside of a 1:1 ratio? How will we scale the project if we can’t break out of the 1:1 ratio?

All of these have required leveraging hard-learned skills and incremental growth. Sort of like the “1% better every day” idea. Until relatively recently, they generally haven’t needed a huge LEAP into, say, “becoming a developer” (whatever that means!). But now, I’m at a point where I’ve exhausted most of what I can do on my own, and I’m not sure where to go from here. I could decide to double down on the skills I have and seek a collaborator who has different skills. Or I could decide to learn the skillsets I will need to do these much more complicated/abstract/technically difficult things, because they are important to me. Or I could “move on” (give up) and work on things that I can actually do. It’s hard to see these choices from the “middle” of the Plateau!

It seems to be the case that when I think I am near the edge of the Plateau, I’m no where near it. But when I think I’m in the middle of it, I might be about to transcend the Plateau and realize that all of that non-progress has actually amounted to something. And it won’t be as hard the next time. But you can never know for sure!

The echo chamber of micro-accomplishments amplifies the sense of doom in the Plateau. The kind of deep learning that secretly/invisibly might be happening is not bite-sized, cute, or easy to describe. There’s no points or swag. It’s a sort of change happening at an elemental level, reorganizing concepts in my brain… leaning on my wretched traits of stubbornness/ambition… betting against self doubt… hoping against hope that the Plateau ends soon and that there really is a vista that I can summit, in fact, I’ve been summitting all along, but I couldn’t see it!

The Plateau is a confusing and scary place, because it’s definitionally hard to take pride in accomplishments while surrounded by Plateau-ness in all directions (and as mentioned above, it’s both hard to see progress AND it seems like everyone ELSE is making progress). Relatedly, it’s hard to remember that the things that are now deemed “so easy as to be insignificant” didn’t used to feel so easy, and they might be someone else’s Plateau.

In the quantum mechanics of Plateaus, my Plateau actually overlaps with others, but because you become a Narcissist when you are in a Plateau, you can’t tell that you actually have company there, that you can actually give and receive help and cameraderie.

I desperately want out of the Plateau… can you tell?

But I also don’t think it’s possible to face ALL learning/hard things with perfectly planned, incremental difficulty; nor is it possible to find someone who has done the exact thing you need to do who can lay it out perfectly. And if it was, would I choose that? I enjoy the satisfaction of working through difficult problems, but not when they are so difficult that they seem nearly impossible!

The Plateau may be mistakenly confused with a “dead end job” or a manager that fails to recognize an employee’s achievements such that they feel like they have “plateaued” at the job and need to find a new job where they can continue to grow. That’s not the kind of Plateau that I am writing about here.

My Plateau is definitely more metaphysical. I’m thrilled with my job and I have LOTS of support. The Plateau-ness encompasses my job and my outside-of-work passion projects.

In the Plateau, my ideas exceed my abilities, and there’s no dotted line to connect them.

In the Plateau, the skills that I do have seem elementary or unfit.

In the Plateau, I discount my achievements because I think someone outside of the Plateau could have done them without breaking a sweat.

In the Plateau, I fear that I’ll be stuck doing things that are either boring or impossible for the rest of time.

In the Plateau, I think that I need to become a “different KIND of person” a person who has “leveled up,” like in the 90’s video game, Space Invaders, where you can fight bigger monsters in advanced levels.

In the Plateau, I don’t know what to do to get OUT of the Plateau. However, all Plateaus eventually do end, either through (1) a choice, (2) a breakthrough, (3) passage of time.

Oh Plateau, I despise you so much!!! When will we be rid of each other? I am ready to apply the skills I DO have to complicated problems, such that the skills naturally get reinforced and new skills join the ranks. I am ready to feel a comfortable sort of confidence, not bravado, perhaps purpose.

Platty, when we go our separate ways, I want to remember my time in you as chaotic but also worthwhile. It wasn’t for naught. You will make me a better technologist and well-rounded social change agent, once I’m back to making plans that actually amount to something. Once I can look back with rose-colored glasses at all of the goodness that came out of my time in the Plateau.

Oh, Plat, I see your contradictions and I see my own. Please, please, let me out of here!

3 thoughts on “hello from the plateau

  1. I have been feeling this exact way. You nailed it. The easy things feel amateurish and the hard things feel like they require postdoctoral research effort in a field I’ve never heard of. It’s so comforting to know that I’m not alone!

    1. OMG – YES that’s exactly it! Thank you for sharing, that means the absolute world to me!

  2. Been there at times my whole career! Stuart Kauffman came up with a theory he called “the adjacent possible.” While he applied it to biological systems, more broadly I think of it is this. There are small, incremental steps you can take to improve something you built, or expand your knowledge. Those steps are just “adjacent” to what you know now. They are by definition just outside what you can do, but aren’t a massive leap, just a small step. When we’re working, we can see those adjacent possible steps and do the work to incorporate them into what we know. So our knowledge space expands outward, and we have newly adjacent steps we can take. But this is not linear–sometimes there are a bunch of small steps we can take in succession very quickly, and other times it’s hard to see anywhere to go. I think that second state is similar to that “plateau” feeling. So what can unlock more adjacent possible? 1) Innovation – when a new tool is invented, or new platform functionality comes out, it can spur a bunch of thoughts about how we could incorporate that into how we work, 2) Learning a new platform skill/tool – if I learn to code, it greatly expands what I can do because it’s a general tool that can do things that are just not possible without it. In my career at many points I’ve decided to put in the significant effort to learn a platform tool for the adjacent possible it can unlock (e.g. learning Apex when it came out, learning Make.com integration platform this last year) Those things felt like huge mountains to climb, but the investment paid off and dozens of small next steps became clear very quickly after I put that learning time in.

    There have been many many times when I’ve looked at a tool and thought, oh what would be possible if I could magically learn it overnight! And then I’ve gone on my way doing other stuff. Tools/platforms change so quickly that keeping an eye out for when that investment time drops significantly has really paid off for me. You basically wait to see when chair lifts are installed on your mountain of choice and then hop on to get much more bang for your learning buck! In the Salesforce world I watch the release notes around Flow very carefully because they have been in full chair lift building mode for the last couple years. Same with SFDX, but the mountain is much bigger and the lift still only goes so far…

Leave a Reply to Cher Cancel reply