Looking at the path of growth we see an upward trajectory to new levels of consciousness and mastery. But belying our upward ascent is the fact is that in the journey of growth most of our time is spent at a plateau. George Leonard, author of the book Mastery, explains this sensation well: “Days and weeks pass with no apparent progress. There you are on that damned plateau.”
Bruce Lee may encourage us to go beyond the plateau but Leonard highlights an “essential paradox:” being “dedicated to the process as well as the product.” He explains this process holds true “in every human activity that involves significant learning – mental, physical, emotion, or spiritual.”
Great artists and poets, like Longfellow in The Light of the Star, understand the importance of the glory and the grind on our path to growth:
While the great Martin Luther King reminds us that struggle is built into the spiritual traditions like Christianity:
Again we turn to George Leonard who understands that practice at the plateau exists only in the “eternal now:”
One important aspect that’s important for us leaders on the plateau is focus. Daniel Goleman, of Emotional Intelligence fame, dedicated an entire book on focus.
In his book of just that name, Focus, Goleman explains the importance of ‘top-down focus’ in learning to improve any skill.
Echoing Russel Simmons admonition to keep our eyes on the path, Goleman highlights the importance of ‘paying full attention.’
However, Goleman makes an important distinction between amateurs and experts. “Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations.
With minimal hours of training – about 50 hours suggest Goleman – people become ‘good enough’ – going through the motions automatically.
But experts embrace the Glorious Grind during the journey of growth. “The experts in contrast,” writes Goleman, “keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate on the moves they have yet to perfect or correcting what’s not working in their game….Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.”
As leaders we have to take this lesson to heart and be on guard for our game becoming ‘bottom-up’ as well. The antidote is to embrace the glory and the grind of our continual striving on the path of growth.
Leonard closes out his book by telling a story of the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano. When he was close to death he called his students around him and told them that he wanted to be buried in his white belt. “…But Kano’s request, I eventually realized, was less humility than realism. At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts. And if death makes beginners of us all, so does life – again and again. I the master’s secret mirror, event at the moment of highest renown and accomplishment, there is an image of the newest student in class, eager for knowledge, willing to play the fool.”