Last time?we took a whirlwind tour of a common brain myth. Today we are going to address one of the biggest career killers: the plateau.

Prior to founding Go Neuro I worked in a variety of sectors, from academic to non-profit to government to corporate, always in some kind of training/consulting capacity. My last job was fantastic. I was teaching and traveling regularly (there are few things more satisfying than wracking up travel points and receiving regular TSA pat-downs). I consistently met generous and interesting people. I trained and managed all of the company’s workshop developers and instructors. I was not bored and I was not often overworked. For the first few years, the work stretched and challenged me more than any previous position…

?…and then it just didn’t anymore.

The work was still good, but not so challenging. I stuck around. Each year I felt myself being challenged less and less, but the work was reliable. “I’m so lucky!” I told myself. “I’d be crazy to give up a good thing like this.” Over time I felt myself shifting more of my daily job functions to my subconscious; I hardly had to think about what I did. I began to grow bored, but it was nothing a weekend with friends or new electronic toy wouldn’t fix! I was still passionate about my work, but not quite as passionate as I used to be. The job began to feel routine, yet I stayed for years.

I had plateaued.

A plateau is when we are no longer climbing upward. Growth is stagnant and we no longer feel challenged. Our careers all plateau at some point?unless we are positively godlike in our personal development, it will happen more than once?and the reasons we plateau are varied:

  1. We are?no longer good enough to go any further. In the 1960s Laurence J. Peter coined a famous semi-facetious?concept in management theory called the Peter principle. To summarize, it states that employees are promoted to their level of incompetence. In other words, people will keep getting promoted and promoted until they are no longer good at what they do, at which point promotions stop. Sometimes we plateau because we’ve reached the level of our own incompetence.
  2. We were never a good fit for our job in the first place. I see this happen at a frighteningly?high rate, and the seeds of it are planted in elementary school. So often I hear?adults tell children something like, “Hey, you’re good at this, you should do this.” Rarely does a child hear, “Hey, you?love?this, and you’re good at it. You should do this.” By the time the kid begins thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, they think, “Well, I’ve been told over and over again that I’m good at this. I don’t really like it, but maybe that’s what being an adult is: doing things you’re good at, but don’t like, so you can support yourself.” They then choose degrees and career paths based on what they are good at, with little regard to what they?enjoy. The plateau arrives?swiftly, not because they lack the talent or skills, but because they lack the passion to drive their own growth.
  3. We were trapped by our own success. This can happen in a few ways. We might become so good at what we’ve been doing, we begin to fear that any failure might cause us to fall off our perch. We thus become paralyzed by perfectionism and force ourselves onto a plateau. Or it may be that our success led the company to want to give us promotions and we happily accepted, not necessarily realizing at the time that the promotion took us into a job for which we lacked either the talent or the passion (or both). I see this happen most often to technical professionals. A person is a truly fantastic scientist or engineer or programmer, and the company wants to reward them for that…so they get promoted into management and never again get to do the things they love.
  4. We decided?whether consciously or subconsciously?to plateau, at least in terms of promotion. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We may decide the cost of going further is more than we were willing to pay. Don’t want to work a billion hours a week, living on nothing but coffee and stress hormones? Don’t accept that promotion to CEO! Don’t want to wear tight clothes and full-body makeup in front of thousands of strangers? Don’t give up your job in the Cirque du Soleil stage crew for that “promotion” to acrobat! If we give up promotions to keep doing what we love, our personal development will be able to continue. The bigger threat is?if we?get complacent. We truly enjoy our jobs?the work is good enough?and so we settle into a comfortable, relatively happy routine. This is precisely what happened to me in my previous job.
  5. We never actually plateaued, but we feel like we have because we aren’t getting promoted. Such a feeling is understandable but, as mentioned in the previous point,?plateauing on the promotion ladder does not mean we have plateaued in our own development.?In the age of the highly-hierarchical organizational structures during which?the Peter principle was spawned, there was a lot of truth to the idea that we will?be promoted to our first level of incompetence, because there were so many levels of hierarchy?through which to be promoted! Over time, as populations grow and companies have flattened their hierarchies, there are simply fewer promotions to go around.?When we are no longer getting promotions, we may feel like our growth must be slowing?or we failed some kind of test, when in reality the talent pool simply far exceeds the reward pool.?This happens in academia as well. When I was in high school I was very good at one thing: tests. I genuinely loved taking tests,?and I did it well. (Strangely, this did not boost my popularity with my peers.) My grades and my scores on standardized?tests like the SAT and ACT were fantastic. But I did nothing else to polish my high school resume. I did no?extracurriculars. No sports, no student body work, no musical instruments, nada. (And despite the excellent use of a Spanish word at the end of that sentence, I never learned another language.) Still, with my grades and test scores I was able to attend university on a full-tuition scholarship. My younger brother, on the other hand, was a much more well-rounded creature. His grades were almost as good as mine, and he was also very social. He participated in multiple extracurricular activities and played not one but three musical instruments, and played them well. His reward: a half-tuition scholarship. To this day I find that wildly unfair. My younger brother’s high school resume put mine to shame, yet he got less reward than I did, simply because he was younger and therefore competing against a larger (and more competitive) pool of applicants.

As individuals we have no influence over the number of promotions available in the world. But we get nowhere focusing on what we can’t do anything about. As?mentioned previously, brains love to feel in control. Next time we will discuss how we can take control of our own career paths and get off the plateau, as well as how to avoid plateaus in the future.

For Your Consideration

  1. When was the last time you plateaued? Based on the reading above, what might be the cause (or causes)?
  2. Look back even further. When else have you plateaued? Were the causes the same or different than the last time you hit a plateau? What does that mean for you?
  3. Think about your current job and be brutally honest: are you plateaued right now? How much of your daily work do you genuinely love? Eighty percent? Fifty? Zero? While it is unrealistic to expect to love one hundred percent of our work all the time, we should love most of it.

Editor’s Note:?Michael-John would like his readers to know that he received a thousand blogging points for each time he spelled “plateau” correctly without using spellcheck.?