The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success

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9780525952800: The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success

The Plateau Effect is a powerful law of nature that affects everyone.  Learn to identify plateaus and break through any stagnancy in your life— from diet and exercise, to work, to relationships.

The Plateau Effect shows how athletes, scientists, therapists, companies, and musicians around the world are learning to break through their plateaus—to turn off the forces that cause people to “get used to” things—and turn on human potential and happiness in ways that seemed impossible. The book identifies three key flattening forces that generate plateaus, two principles to guide readers in engineering a plateau’s destruction, and three actions to take to achieve peak behavior. It helps us to stop wasting time on things that are no longer of value and to focus on the things that leverage our time and energy in spectacular ways.

Anything you want to do better—play guitar, make friends, communicate with your children, run a business—you can accomplish faster by understanding the plateau effect.

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About the Author:

BOB SULLIVAN and HUGH THOMPSON are entrepreneurial analysts with 40 years of experience between them researching, writing, and analyzing systems and human nature.  Bob is an investigative journalist for NBC News and MSNBC.com and the bestselling author of Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off.  Hugh is a mathematics and computer science professor and speaker who teaches executives how to protect themselves from 21st Century hazards.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Beginning

Give us three minutes, your imagination, and your nose, and we bet we’ll convince you that The Plateau Effect is the most powerful force of nature you’ve never heard about.

Let us take you to the Paris of the West, to a block in San Francisco where the unmistakable aroma – stench? – of garlic suddenly overpowers every other gritty smell on Columbus Avenue. About half a mile from the famous triangular Transamerica building in San Francisco, there’s a restaurant that you can’t help but notice. The unusual name, “The Stinking Rose” might persuade you to take a look inside, but that’s not what really grabs your attention. No, it’s that smell wafting out the front door onto the sidewalk, swirling around all the passers-by.

The Stinking Rose is a sort of homage to garlic, and has every garlic dish you could possibly imagine. These range from the traditional, such as garlic spaghetti, to the exceptional, like garlic ice cream. The restaurant serves over 3,000 pounds of garlic a month, as you walk inside, you can smell every clove of it.

But once you are seated at your table, something remarkable starts to happen. With stunning speed, the scent of garlic fades and the other smells of San Francisco return. Your wife’s perfume, or the grapy wine, or the bleached tablecloth, curiously re-emerge, and their aroma seems to overpower the garlic.

Of course, that’s not at all what’s happened. Your nose has simply gotten tired of the garlic scent and stops telling your brain that it’s there. You might say you’ve grown numb to the garlic, but the word numb hardly does justice the amazing evolutionary trait we’ve just described.

We’ve become so used to this disappearing smell phenomenon that most of us don’t even think about it. It’s why you might need someone else to tell you it’s time to reapply deodorant or suck on a breath mint. It’s why most of us grow queasy at the thought of entering a high school locker room, but the athletes don’t seem to mind. With incredible speed, people become immune to even the most pungent odors.

This immunity is the body’s natural defense against being constantly distracted by stimulus. If our bodies didn’t adapt, our attention would be relentlessly divided by millions of smells – even our own scent -- and unable to notice changes in the environment around us. The effect is called “acclimation.” Without it, stopping to smell the roses would be an act of unending distraction. Acclimation is a critical element of our evolutionary design.

Naturally, acclimation is not limited to smell; it governs all our senses. Acclimation is why people who live in big cities learn to ignore the sound of traffic outside their windows while it drives suburban guests crazy. It’s why we forget that we’re wearing a wedding ring, or glasses, when initially they are so irritating. Acclimation is why we “get used” to things.

Humans are hard-wired to eventually ignore consistency, especially in the form of smell, taste, touch and hearing. At its most base level, this behavior is a survival instinct: the ability to adapt and ignore distracting information is a natural form of self-defense. It allows us to focus on changes and new things that enter the environment that might be a potential threat. This ignoring of persistent stimulus is generally a welcome feature of how the body works. But often, acclimation does more harm than good.

There are times when it would be very helpful to turn off this defense mechanism.

The Plateau Effect will show how athletes, scientists, relationship therapists, companies, and musicians around the world are learning to do just that – to turn off the forces that cause people to “peak out” or “get used to” things -- and turn on human potential and happiness in ways you probably think impossible. The Plateau Effect will show you why the world is full of one-hit-wonders, why all good things come to an end, why all trends eventually fall, why most people get less for more, and how you can break through, again and again. Plateaus are like governors that cap your Uhaul van speed at 50 mph. We will show you how to disable this secret governor and turn on your inner Maserati.

Just give us another few hours or your time.

Understanding why we reach a plateau can help us stop wasting time on things that we’ve stopped getting value from and focus on other things that leverage our time and energy better. The Plateau Effect tells us when to eat, what we should do in the gym, how to build a successful business, and even how to build stronger and broader relationships. Knowing how The Effect influences everything in our lives helps us get maximum value in minimum time and then move on quickly once we’ve reached a goal. It helps us do a good enough job quickly for things that aren’t very important to free up time to concentrate on things that are. Those who master The Effect, who can identify a plateau and break through, leave one-hit wonders in the dust.

* * *

Just try harder. Just work harder. Just do more.

That’s the advice you’ve heard again and again, from teachers, coaches, bosses, and parents. But what if you’re already trying as hard as you can? In fact, try harder is often the worst advice you could possibly give. Have you ever found yourself giving more and more to task you care about – learning to play piano, trying to fix a broken love relationship – and getting less and less return for your effort? Of course you have. That’s how the universe is built. Physics, biology, chemistry, even economics, all dictate this truth – effort follows the law of diminishing returns. Trying harder is a failed, frustrating strategy. Trying harder to smell the garlic after your nose has acclimated to The Stinking Rose won’t reawaken your olfactory nerves. It doesn’t work anywhere else in your life, either.

Bodybuilders and dieters know this well. They begin a new regimen of weightlifting or starvation. For 10 days or so, the results are fantastic, even inspiring. Down 4 pounds, or up another 10 on the military press. But somewhere near that two-week mark, they hit a wall. The scale seems frozen in place. The strength gains top out. They have, cruelly, plateaued.

Plateaus may seem subtle at first, but once you know what to look for, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. In fact, millions of Americans watch them, perhaps unknowingly, during prime time television. Fans of the hit NBC TV show The Biggest Loser witness cruel plateaus every season. Contestants nearly always lose an extraordinary amount of weight in week 1, when their bodies are shocked by the new lifestyle. Then, what insiders call the “Week 2 Plateau,” hits, and the results are downright depressing. We analyzed data from all contestants during the first four seasons of the show. On average, they lost an amazing 5 percent of their body weight during week one. But even under the most scrutinized conditions, with the best possible trainers available, the plateau effect couldn’t be beat. Week two always brings a dramatic lack of progress – and a lot more yelling by trainers. During season two, for example, contestants averaged less than 2 percent weight loss in week two. And during the inaugural season, they dropped a completely discouraging 0.6 percent, or roughly 90 percent less than in week one. Contestants who survive get as their reward the even louder screaming voice of a trainer. The screaming really doesn’t help. It’s just The Plateau Effect in action.

We believe the Plateau Effect is a law of nature, as real and as impactful as gravity or friction. It’s built directly into the genetic code of our bodies, and into the planet we inhabit, which we hope we’ll prove to you in the following pages. This seemingly immovable obstacle, this frustrating success-followed-by-stuckness formula, impacts us all. It foils the most modern software companies as they try to hunt for devastating bugs. It foiled ancient mystics who wrote extensively about spiritual plateaus, when prayer seemed to lose impact and passion for faith seemed to wane. They developed extreme methods to reset and restart their faith, like the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises created by the founder of the Jesuit order in the 1500s, which must be practiced in silence for a month.

Plateaus are everywhere.

There is a comfort in merely learning about the existence of The Plateau Effect. Since you were a small child, people have told you that the solution to your problems was to try harder. We’re here to tell you that every day, the universe is conspiring against people who think that more is the answer. It’s built to stop you. At a bare minimum, we want this book to ease a burden you’ve probably been fighting since you were a baby, and which has become a 21st Century malady. Doing more work doesn’t work. You can put the Blackberry down now and relax a little. You already look more graceful.

In fact, the very word plateau is comfortable – at least, far more comfortable than “problem.” We’ve found that’s it’s infinitely easier for couples, employees, and students to talk about plateaus than problems. Try this easy experiment: Ask one group of employees to talk about their problems at the company; then ask another to talk about plateaus they encounter at work. One conversation is negative, and usually descends into cattiness and name calling. The other often leads to discussion of untapped potential and solutions. Guess which is which!

While the Plateau Effect is a fundamental part of nature, modern life has deeply exacerbated the frustrations it causes. The age of specialization and mechanization has robbed many of us of diversity in critical areas of life. Exercise is a good example. Running on a treadmill can't hold a candle to running on a golf course. Bench press exercise on a universal gym doesn't do nearly as much for you as lifting free weights. And that stomach crunch rolly thing isn't worth the $9.95 shipping and handling you paid for it. Why? Because all these gadgets work to isolate individual muscle groups. That's fine if you want one very strong muscle in your life. But if you want to be healthy, you have to play outside. You have to let your body struggle with all the variety, surprise, and diversity that nature affords.

This is the madness behind the method of a small but growing number of health-conscious Americans who follow what some call the "paleo diet." John Durant, a very healthy, long-haired 20-something living in Manhattan, is their spokesman. Sometimes called The Caveman, Durant believes that exercise requires doing what men and women did 10,000 years ago -- he and his friends throw large rocks, climb trees, balance on logs, and do other outside activities which engage all their minds and bodies at once.

"(I do) the sorts of natural movements that hunter gatherers did just to survive in the past," he says. "It's what children do on the playground.... They haven't learned any fitness method. They run, they jump, they're on the monkey bars. They wrestle. They crawl on all fours and they do these things instinctively. And it's only when we become adults that we get on to treadmills and elliptical and do the same 3 or 4 movements over and over again.”

You don’t have to live in a cave to see his point. Isolationism, driven by gadgetry, treadmills and other modern “conveniences,” hastens the Plateau Effect dramatically. Now more than ever, it’s essential to understand why.

***

There’s an important distinction between reaching life equilibrium and being stuck in a plateau. Families need stability to thrive. People need a sense of safety, they need to know they won’t be hungry, and they’ll have a warm bed at night. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, this sense of security is o the most basic requirement for a happy human existence. For many families, simply achieving a predictable workplace and loving home is all the challenge they need. Equilibrium like that is a primal drive, no less than the way our ancestors were driven to find today’s food while avoiding being eaten themselves.

You might be inclined to think of creating a stable home as a plateau...but we wouldn’t call it that. As anyone who had tried to juggle a marriage, a job, and child rearing knows, there is no such thing as status quo at home. Instead, a bunch of competing needs wrestle in constant tension – do we go on vacation or pay for braces? Do you work late or go to the kid’s soccer game? Wrestling with such tension, working towards the equilibrium required for a stable family life, and the tremendous personal growth it provides, is nothing like a plateau. At best, it’s a dance, a balancing act that occasionally reaches a peaceful state of equilibrium, or what engineers might call “steady state.“ But then, one child takes up drumming, or another moves into high school, and the balancing act reignites again. Nope, chasing after a two-year-old and holding a baby while trying to sound professional during a conference call is nothing like a vaguely dissatisfying plateau – Hugh can testify directly to that.

Meanwhile, plenty of segments of our lives, at certain times, benefit greatly from reaching “set-and-forget” mode, the steady state we’ve already mentioned. If you have an assistant who’s proven himself responsible for 10 years, who always files your expense reports on time and stops you from sending inflammatory e-mails, you don’t want him taking a new job, forcing you to start over with a new assistant. If you’ve picked an elementary school for your child, you don’t want the school to close and force you to do a new round of school visits. Think of these as “background tasks,” or the “commodities” of your life. You’re happy with them as they are, chugging along in sustain mode. But other parts of your life, what you might consider the “entrepreneurial” part of life, deserve much more than auto-pilot. These are areas of life where you want to invest. They are different for everyone; and they change throughout life. Today, it might be your career. Tomorrow, it might be your marriage...or perhaps putting yourself in a position to help your child pick the right college. Distinguishing between the “set-and-forget” part of your life, and the entrepreneurial part, is essential for talking on the right challenges.

A real plateau means you have stopped growing. It means your mind and senses are being dulled by sameness, by a routine which sucks the life and soul out of you, by getting less and less out of life while doing more and more. Plateaus ultimately force you to make bad decisions and feel desperate. Understanding this force, and tapping into it, will let you get more from less effort, and feel more in tune with the reasons you were put on this planet. It will help you be a better coach, better parent, a better provider for your family. Frustrated men and women who are unhappy with their lot in life make poor parents; the best gift any dad or mom can give a child is to be happy, and to teach their kids to be happy. Understanding your plateaus – feeling and dealing with the places in your life where there’s vague dissatisfaction, and doing it in the most efficient, successful way – is the quickest route to the equilibrium you seek, whether you have six children, 16 grandchildren, or you enjoy the si...

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