How Progression REALLY Happens
A lot of people know that they need to exercise to lose weight, they need to study to get the results they want, or that they need to practice to earn myelin – but yet they don’t it.
Because getting good at anything whether it be sport, music, martial arts or so on is not a matter of simply rationally understanding what you need to do – getting good is an emotional game.
They don’t have the emotional control to deal with the boredom, pain, struggle, and drudgery that is necessary when learning something new. They don’t understand themselves, their mental barriers, or the subtle ways in which they sabotage themselves.
How successful you are in any discipline, including physical endeavours, is largely determined by your quality of your mind. So now that we have a basic scientific understanding, it’s time to look at the psychological side of things.
THE MASTERY CURVE
The curve below comes from a beautiful book called Mastery, written by martial artist and teacher George Leonard. It represents the reality of how acquisition of skill really occurs over time. The horizontal axis represents the time spent practicing, and the vertical axis represents your apparent skill level.
This is how all personal growth occurs, regardless of the field or discipline. It applies to your competence in martial arts, science, business, public speaking, and anything else you can think of.
What this line shows is the growth occurs in short spurts, followed by a slight regression and a long period of time on a plateau. The main feature of this curve to note is the plateau: it shows that no matter what you do you will always experience long periods of time (AKA firing circuits again and again) with absolutely no signs of improvement.
Then, only after a lot of effort and time spent practicing, you will experience a moment when everything you have been drilling will click. Bam, improvement. But after that burst of progression – which may last a few seconds, a few hours, or a few days – you will always be confronted with a regression (a drop in your skill) and you will be back to another plateau (however a slightly higher one than last time).
We call this the mastery curve.
This model can come as a shock to people because we tend to think of growth as a linear process with success proportional to the hours we spend practicing. This is not true, at least on the surface.
Although it doesn’t outwardly show, what is happening under the hood while you’re on the plateau is that your neural circuits are slowly becoming more and more refined. They’re becoming faster, more accurate, and more robust. It feels like nothing is happening despite your effort and struggle, but you are slowly internalising the movements you are practicing. You are slowly rewiring your brain.
Eventually, when the conditions are right, all of that drilling and practice will cause something to click within you. You’ll be able to make a connection or achieve something you were previously incapable of achieving.
This is counterintuitive because in our culture we are taught that if something isn’t measurable then it isn’t real. But that’s not true, and it’s not the case here. For majority of your time spent practicing your growth will not be measurable, and you need to learn to be okay with that.
The myth of quick and easy growth is one of the biggest reasons people sabotage themselves and never master anything in their life.
This is a book about mastery, but to really get a solid understanding of what mastery is it’s worthwhile to explore what it most definitely isn’t. In the book Mastery, George Leonard outlines three archetypes of what he calls the antimastery mindset. These are toxic mindsets planted in our brains by our quick-fix consumer culture, and falling victim to any of these attitudes will stop you in your tracks from becoming world class at anything in your life.
The dabbler loves the feeling of starting something new. They buy all the gear, they tell everybody about it and how much they love it. But then after a few days, weeks or months, when they are no longer improving as fast as they were at first, they give up and quit.
They expect mastering a skill should be relatively easy, and so when they run into their first plateau they are in for a nasty surprise. They aren’t prepared to face some emotional or physical hardship, and so instead of persisting and pushing past the plateau they just quit and try something else. Who knows, maybe that will be easier?
The dabbler will find any excuse to justify their behaviour, generally attributing their lack of growth to genetics or something out of their hands. Perhaps they just aren’t naturally talented enough? Or so they will tell themselves.
The dabbler is sold on the idea of the quick-fix, and this will prevent them from ever mastering anything.
The obsessive is also fearful of the plateau, but instead of running from it like the dabbler he will try to overcome it by tripling down on his practice.
The obsessive is ambitious and understands the critical importance of results. He is aggressive when it comes to practice, and won't lend a flying fuck to anybody who smacks of patience, rest, or slowing down.
But this is a problem, because you cannot force the plateau.
If you try to push past you will inevitably self-destruct – you will either burn out, lose motivation, or end up with a critical injury. Mastery is a slow and gradual process, and whether you like it or not patience is a key ingredient.
There is a huge lack of patience in tricking. Obsessives are super common – and I know this because it takes one to know one.
I'm a naturally obsessive person by nature, and so when I start something I go all in. It has never mattered what I was doing: whether it was academia, scooters, or tricking – I’d go hard and brush off any advice to slow down as words from the weak.
I think to some extent it is an admirable mindset to have, but it isn't strategic in the long-term. And remember, that mastery is a very, very long game.
To share a story; when I was younger I would try to learn a new trick every single day at the skatepark. I had a lot of friends who were much better than me, and so for the longest time I kept trying to speed up my progression to catch up. I would often land a trick a couple of times, and then almost instantly try to move on and 1-up it.
I would train as hard as I could for weeks at a time, but then every now and I would just completely fall off schedule because I had either crashed too many times and was too hurt to ride, or I was exhausted and got sick, or just had some form of psychological breakdown and just rage-quit. I never mastered anything on a deep level and so I developed a skill set full of holes like a piece of Swiss cheese.
Another thing that really confused me and pissed me off was the fact that every time I improved I would come back the next day and not be able to repeat what I'd learned (remember the regression on the mastery curve?). Of course being obsessive I just tried to force the improvement to come back, which it never did.
What I realise now (and what you need to realise if you are an obsessive) is that the plateau is a very, very real thing, and you can’t brute force your way past it no matter how hard you try. The mastery curve is an important tool, because it allows for days where you aren’t at peak performance, and accounts for regression after learning something new. Study it and drill the idea into your brain.
Watching your progression is like watching the hour hand on a clock. You will drive yourself crazy trying to find the incremental movements. But if you look back in hindsight, the change is blatantly obvious.
The remedy for the obsessive is to think longer term, and learn to love the plateau.
If you're an obsessive then you need to slow down a bit and learn to love the plateau, but with that said every virtue always lies between two vices.
The hacker doesn't get its name from hacking growth or somehow cheating, but in the sense that he or she hacks around, and no longer takes practice seriously.
The hacker isn't afraid of the plateau – the hacker is addicted to the plateau. It’s the guy or girl that gets a little bit of knowledge or skill, and then instead of pushing their comfort zone and working to improve they just kick back and hack around with friends.
The hacker chooses comfort over challenge, and prefers to repeat what he has always done rather than risk the possibility of being embarrassed by trying something new. He sweep flaws under the rug, and so he’s a winner in his own mind. But deep down knows that he longs for mastery: He is too afraid to get uncomfortable, and so he’s a prisoner to his internal demons.
This is a short section from my book The Tricker Code: