Maria Popova shares perspectives on the perils of the “OK Plateau”

PopovaHere is a brief excerpt from an article written by Maria Popova for her website, Brain Pickings. As she explains, “The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to culture, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will be.”

To read the complete article, please click here.

To learn more about Maria and Brain Pickings, please click here.

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“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot – which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us – is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills.

In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (Amazon Publishing Company 2013) — that fantastic guide to making your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine — science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

“In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the ‘cognitive phase,’ during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the ‘associative stage,’ when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.”

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” – the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

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MoonwalkingFoer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin Press 2011) – the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science.

After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition – cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

“During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the ‘OK Plateau,’ the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity – in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

To learn more about Maria and Brain Pickings, please click here.

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