What should you do when you get stuck learning something new?
I’ve been waiting to write this post for a while now. Something finally happened. I knew it would. I had been fearing this day… I didn’t want to get frustrated or bored playing the guitar, but I could feel these things creeping in.
Today I realized that I hadn’t played in a couple days. Nothing to be too concerned about, of course, but it made me realized that I had plateaued. It’s easy to get addicted to daily (or at least weekly) progress, and when that progress starts to flatten out, the addiction can turn into discouragement.
When I picked up the guitar this evening, though, something strange happened. I totally relaxed. After a couple days being “too busy to play,” and it was a relief to just start strumming again. The weird part was that I didn’t realize this until I actually started playing: I realized that the plateau was not an impediment, but a necessary part of the learning.
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The truth is, skill acquisition feels like a “step function” (the red line) even though it progresses more like the blue line, below. In this post, I’ll explain why this is important, and how you can use it to your advantage.
What’s Causing the Plateau?
In retrospect, it was no coincidence that I had stated signing lessons about the same time that the guitar playing plateaued. I didn’t notice the fact that the two happened together at the time. After I played for 30 minutes today I saw what had changed in the time since I had started taking singing lessons.
Singing had forced me to be aware of other parts of the song, instead of just reacting to the notes in front of me. If you’re stuck on a plateau, you might also be battling some challenge that you’re not even consciously aware of. In my case, I realized that one learning to be aware of the vocal cues while playing the guitar meant I had to focus on a bunch of new information.
When I sat down to play, it was easy for the first time in weeks. The notes were clear and the timing spot on. I had taken a step back, internally, and approached the problem differently…
Latent Learning: the Hidden Benefit of a Plateau
When I was on this recent guitar plateau, I didn’t even realize that I was focusing so much on the vocals. I was blind to the crossover between the two practice sessions, to the fact that singing was creating a whole new class of information my brain was trying to grapple with.
During this plateau, instead of just racing along, I was forced to slow down and focus on my practice. Learning about vocal cues had slowed my guitar progress, which felt like stagnation, but was actually my brain dealing with new information. If you’re on a plateau but practicing correctly, your brain is likely struggling with some challenge you haven’t identified yet. Taking a brief break to let your brain consolidate all the information might actually be a good idea.
To my surprise, when I played today, I could switch between most of the common guitar chords and keep a steady rhythm without even looking at the notes. There’s even a scientific name for this phenomenon: latent learning. The individual finger placements had disappeared, and all I could see was “A minor” and “G” and so on. Thanks to the power of rest and recovery, I suddenly saw just how far I had come!
Finally, I was seeing signs that I was improving…
Detecting Signs that You’re Improving
If you’re stuck in frustration, you might actually be missing some of the subtle signs that you’re learning. As we become experts in anything, the main thing the brain is doing is to create “shortcuts” for information. It’s now easier for me to remember the name and sound of a chord, for example, than the exact finger positions (yet my body will “just play it” if I try). My brain has “chunked” the information.
If you’re stuck on a plateau, after you take a break for a couple days, try to take a step back and look at your progress. Odds are, there are probably things that you have not even realized that you’re doing.
Often, this improvement comes in the form of technique: you might be doing something automatically that used to require conscious effort. When I first learned to speak French and Chinese, pronunciation was a big challenge. I worked hard to say each word correctly, using deliberate practice to say things slowly and clearly. Doing things “correctly” as a student can feel slow and frustrating, which makes you blind to the improvements you’re making. You might not even be aware as these things are becoming automatic.
There are other signs that you’re improving while on a plateau, too. You’ll actually have awareness of new things. I remember the first time that I ever heard a non-native speaker of Chinese use the wrong tone. It was a small, easy mistake to make (tones are very hard to pronounce in Chinese), but what was shocking is that I caught the mistake. Tones were very difficult for me, and to suddenly hear someone else’s mistake was a huge revelation.
All of this can lead to an increased sense of comfort or confidence. Most days, my progress with music feels slow and challenging… but every once in a while, I notice that I’m spontaneously singing or tapping my foot to some music. What’s significant about this is the fact that I actually know when I’m doing it right. For the first time in my life, I’m aware when I’m singing in tune or tapping in-time.
Getting To the Next Plateau
Once you detect progress, paradoxically, the goal actually becomes to get to the next plateau.
What I mean is: once you’ve gotten past a plateau, you need to introduce new challenges into your practice so that it becomes challenging again. The secret of latent learning is that what you thought was a “plateau” was actually your brain/body grappling with a challenge. Once it overcomes that plateau and you detect progress, it’s time to create a new goal and introduce some new challenge.
Think about what separates you from the “perfect” version of your skill. For example, my next big goal with music is to be able to sing and play a song all the way through without missing a note. To do this, I’m going to need to start practicing a specific song separately with singing and on the guitar, and then slowly combine the two skills. If you’re learning a language, you might want to work up to having a brief “how are you?” conversation. If you’re studying for a class, your next goal might simply be the next chapter of the book.
Whatever the case, once you’ve beaten one plateau… it’s time to aim for the next.