The Piano Player
When I studied the piano, a long time ago, I had several times the experience of reaching a “plateau”. Suddenly I did not progress anymore. This happens a lot and certainly not only in the world of music. Also athletes, artists, business people and everyone who is executing a human activity and wants to become good at it.
Back to the piano. Someone who starts to play the piano, can get to a certain level very fast. They can play simple tunes, with two hands. But to leave the level of the simple tunes and go to the first simple pieces of classical composers, they need to put effort into it. And even with the effort, it’s possible that there is no significant progression? How come?
We can answer this question by looking at learning as increasing performance (or ability) over time. This is sometimes called the S-shaped curve of learning.
The S-Shaped Curve
The Theory of the S-Shaped curve (a sigmoid) of human growth states that learning occurs in certain phases. When learning a skill, people usually start at level 0. They will first start out slowly. They they enter a phase of fast progression. They add skills and the progress is exponential. At a certain moment progress gets at speed there is a steady evolution, followed by a period of slower evolution. To finally reach the top of the evolution. This is the “plateau”, the experience that growth is over.
This is an interesting moment because there are 3 options:
- one can maintain the level of performance at the current level (maintain)
- one can regress (fall)
- one can find a new S-shaped Curve, which means that the exponential growth starts all over again (reboot).
When a piano player reaches the level of stagnation, it is even kind of risky to continue practicing. It is not unlikely that the techniques will be spoiled by sloppiness. That’s the free fall moment. And once the technique has become less pure or disciplined, it’s very difficult to unlearn. Doing more of the same is not always the best idea. At first people become better at it, but after a while they can stop learning or learning some bad habits. And we all know what that means.
This so called sigmoid growth curve has been used to explain many dynamic processes, like innovation, learning, …It’s only one of the possible descriptions of a learning curve. It has been observed in many instances of learning, like language acquisition. Even when this is an ideal model of learning, it’s interesting to consider this model when thinking about careers or even life-span development. .
How to Relaunch Growth?
So, once on a plateau, the piano player should find new ways of progressing to get into another S-Shaped Curve. There are many options:
- change the instrument.
- do a master class with another teacher.
- change the music, find new exercises and pieces.
- unlearn bad habits, find new techniques and get feedback on them.
- change the teacher.
- stop playing and find another instrument.
Some of these are drastic, others are more feasible. But there is always a sense of downshifting. Downshifting is the act of leaving known territory to learn new things. It requires that people abandon their job, their role, their status, their accumulated prerogatives. Downshifting is a painful process that many people avoid.
The French call it “reculer pour mieux sauter”.
You could compare it to shifting gears when your car is climbing a slope. You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.
You have to shift down in order to conquer the mountain.
We are all like a piano player. At a certain moment we find ourselves at a level of stagnation. And then we need to decide what to do.
- Shall we try and maintain our level of competence? That is risky, because it’s likely that we will be overtaken by changes which will make our competencies obsolete anyway. It’s important to understand why we do this.
- Shall we allow ourselves to fall down? That’s a recipe for failure.
- Shall we try and relaunch ourselves into a new phase of development. That’s the only way to succeed. But this requires career disruption and downshifting.
Downshifting is always painful. Like I have described in another blog, people stay in a job for the wrong reasons. Even when people are aware that the job is no longer suited, they stay, for convenience, for comfort, for the money, out of fear. The psychology of loss (I know what I have, but don’t know what I’ll get) plays an important role.
We should get rid of the idea that a career should be linear and continuous. If we are to prolong our careers (as we live longer), we need to build in disruptions, moments of dowshifting. A plateau is always an opportunity to learn, to progress and to develop one’s employability. It’s not by doing the same over and over, that people will develop employability in the long run.
As downshifting is so hard to do, people need to develop a concept of what their future will or might be, an attractive concept of themselves in the future. Alternatively one could also develop a disastrous concept of the future: if I don’t change I will end up …
Building a future self is extremely difficult. People are usually unable to do so. But it helps to think in scenarios. What if I stay in this job? What could I do if my employer goes bankrupt? What is my alternative? Can I develop skills that are transferable to other industries, jobs, activities? What do I want to do when I retire? Do I have a plan B? What happens when I stay?
As it is very difficult for people to see themselves in the future, there are very few disruptions in careers. And even less moments of downshifting. People tend do to the same, more of the same, or the same but better. But as we live longer, more of the same is not the right strategy. The risk is that the same will not exist anymore.
I can only advise people to change regularly. It’s the only option to stay agile and versatile. Mobility within the organisation or between organisations or roles is a good thing. It avoids reaching a plateau. It launches growth and enables people to use their potential. But when that plateau is reached anyway, we should take heed.
For people who are in a mono-job career like medical doctors, teachers, nurses, police officers, … it’s more difficult to imagine a different future. They have invested heavily in studies to become what they are today. But even in these positions there are possibilities: changing the employer, changing the country, adding something new, retraining, going for managerial responsibilities, … There is always something that is possible to make sure you can reboot the s-shaped curve and to avoid falling down.
Downshifting helps to avoid falling down.