Loving the plateau

By Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

Photo credit:  Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Recently I came across a flyer at a local judo tournament that cited an astonishing statistic that one out of every thousand people who start a martial art makes it to a black belt. In the world of traditional martial arts, it takes an adult anywhere between three to four years of regular training to get a Shodan (first degree black belt). While this isn’t an easy commitment to make, it isn’t an incredible feat like winning an Olympic medal. This is more like graduating college or finishing high school.

Now imagine a city where every year, ten thousand students enrol into university. Three years later, only ten students graduate with nine thousand nine hundred and ninety students having dropped out. This would be considered a crisis in the university education system. And yet we have a similar drop out rate when it comes to martial arts or for that matter when learning a new language, instrument, art or a sport.

The way of the shokunin

The dojo where I train has several judoka well into their sixties. They rarely miss training and possess the skill and endurance that would put people a third of their age to shame. Many of them started judo in school and have trained regularly for nearly half a century.  I would use the Japanese word shokunin to sum up their consistency and dedication to the art. Shokunin means a craftsman or artist who dedicates oneself to a lifelong pursuit of perfecting a skill. Perfection for a shokunin is a goal that is never reached. However diligent practice of the art with a conscious attitude of self-transformation and service to others is what distinguishes a shokunin.

The way of the shokunin isn’t easy. I remember a conversation with some of these shokunin like judoka who were sprawled on the mats before a training session. As is customary they were bandaging or padding up some of their old injuries. In ironic jest I asked them whether they were having fun. Catching my irony a grizzled veteran quipped ‘who said that the things you enjoy have to be fun?’ Amidst the laughter another added: ‘this is a way of life for us, it is sometimes fun and many times painful but we are better because of it.’

How we learn

The late George Leonard, an extraordinary writer, educator and aikido teacher wrote a wonderful little book titled: ‘Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfilment.’ This book goes a long way in explaining why some people go on to become shokunins and others drop out even before they have really begun. Based on his years of experience as a student and teacher of aikido Leonard puts forward an interesting theory. He says that a technique that is understood intellectually must be repeated hundreds of times before it becomes muscle memory. So when a beginner first learns the basics of judo, tennis or an instrument, every repetition involves conscious effort. After several hundred repetitions the skill becomes habitual and the body instinctively responds without the intervention of conscious thought.

It is the process of making a skill habitual that Leonard focuses on in his book. He writes that learning any complex skill is a long plateau of endless hours of practice intercepted by periodic but small spurts of growth. More plateaus of continual practice follow each spurt of growth. For Leonard the mastering an art has little to do with natural talent and everything to do with how we approach these long plateaus of learning- plateaus where muscle memory is silently built with no visible signs of improvement.

Dabblers, hackers and obsessives

The dabbler, hacker and obsessive are three kinds of people in Leonard’s classification of learner types. The dabbler embarks on new projects, relationships or skills with great enthusiasm, investing in expensive equipment and impressing friends and family with his new found love. However the first plateau with no apparent growth is sufficient to bore and discourage him, making him question whether he made the right choice. The dabbler then concludes that he should try something new instead and quits. He then replays same cycle of ardour, boredom and dropping out with the next thing that catches his fancy.

The hacker on the other hand embarks and stays the course. However she works just enough to stay in her comfort zone and doesn’t really challenge herself. A hacker is most happy with a routine and is too scared to risk disruption even if the risk comes with the possibility of great learning. A hacker will stay in a soul-deadening job, a dysfunctional relationship or perform the same ineffective gym exercises for years rather than risk change.

The obsessive is the go-getter perfectionist who embarks on things with the attitude of getting it right the first time. She buys all the books and learning videos, is first to show up to class and the last to leave. She places a huge amount of pressure on herself to succeed as fast as possible. When she hits the plateau the first time round, she is confused, because she sees learning as a continuous upward gradient rather than plateaus interspersed with small spurts of growth. She muscles her way through the plateau until her first growth spurt only to get dispirited when she hits the next plateau. Sure enough the weight of her expectations prevents her from learning with an open mind. She is repeatedly plagued by stress, self-doubt and injuries that come from trying to fast track processes that just cannot be short cut.

Loving the plateau

The thing that unites the dabbler, hacker and the obsessive is their inability to love the learning plateau and their desire for easy results. In fact Leonard argues that they are products of a culture that glorifies peak moments and quick success rather than the long road to mastery. And he is right.

We are not taught to love the plateau and dedicate ourselves to lifelong learning. Instead we are bombarded with happy images of people and situations that represent an endless series of climactic moments that hide the painstaking journey to get there. It is not hard to understand why most of us can see ourselves in the dabbler, hacker or the obsessive. We live in a culture that is pathological in its goal obsession, crash diets, miracle drugs, instant fame and get rich quick schemes. The devastating social and environmental consequences of this disease are clear for all to see.  

Being here now

The way of the shokunin takes a road to mastery that prioritises balanced, sustainable and long-term growth. It takes joy in the process and loves the plateau. While perfecting the art or craft is the visible goal of the shokunin, her real goal is to elevate her life through the practice. In the end, her life becomes the work of art.  Judo and most traditional martial arts are disciplines that are fundamentally resistant to quick fixes. But then so is any art or craft worth pursuing. To be a shokunin then is to care for the learning itself and be transformed by the practice. What’s more, it is the only way to make the beauty of daily life matter.