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Plateauing

I wrote these comments for the Fallible Ideas discussion group:

Plateauing while learning is an important issue. How do people manage that initial burst of progress? Why does it stop? How can they get going again?

This comes up in other contexts too, e.g. professional gamers talk about it. World class players in e.g. Super Smash Bros. Melee talk about how you have to get through several plateaus to get to the top, and have offered thoughts on how to do that. While they’ve apparently successfully done it themselves, their advice to others is usually not very effective for getting others past plateaus.

One good point I’ve heard skilled gamers say is that plateauing is partly just natural due to learning things with more visible results sometimes, and learning more subtle skills other times. So even if you learn at a constant rate, your game results will appear to have some plateauing anyway. Part of the solution is to be patient and don’t get disheartened and keep trying. Persistence is one of the tools for beating plateaus (and persistence is especially effective when part of the plateau is just learning some stuff with less visible benefits – though if you’re stuck on some key point then mere persistence won’t fix that problem).

When gamers talking about “leveling up” their play, or taking their play “to another level” it implicitly refers to plateaus. If skill increases were just a straight 45 degree line then there’d be no levels, it’d all just blend together. But with plateaus, there are distinguishable different levels you can reach.

It can be really hard to tell how much people plateau because they’re satisfied and don’t care about making further progress vs. they got stuck and rationalize it that way. That applies both to gamers and also to philosophy learners . [A poster] in various ways acted like he was done learning instead of trying to get past his plateau – but was that the cause of him being stuck, or was it a reaction to being stuck?


A while after people plateau, they commonly go downhill. They don’t just stay stable, they fall apart. Elements of this have been seen with many posters. (Often it’s ambiguous because people do things like quit philosophy without explaining why. So one can presume they fell apart in some way, some kind of stress got to them, but who knows, maybe they got hit by a car or got recruited by the CIA.)

In general, stagnation is unstable. This is something BoI talks about. It’s rapid progress or else things fall apart. Why? Problems are inevitable. Either you solve them (progress) or things start falling apart (unsolved problems have harmful consequences).

New problems will come up. If your problem solving abilities are failing, you’re screwed. If your problem solving abilities are working, you’ll make progress. You don’t just get to stand still and nothing happens. There are constantly issues coming up threatening to make things worse, and the only solution is problem solving which actually takes you forward.

So anyway people come to philosophy, make progress, get stuck, then fall apart.

A big part of why this happens is they find some stuff intuitively easy, fun, etc, and they get that far, then get stuck at the part where it requires more “work”, organization, studying books, or whatever else they find hard. People have the same issue in school sometimes – they are smart and coast along and find classes easy, then they eventually run into a class where they find the material hard and it can be a rough transition to deal with that or they can just abruptly fail.

Also people get excited and happy and stuff. Kinda like being infatuated with a new person they are dating. People do that with hobbies too. And that usually only happens once per person per hobby. Usually once their initial burst of energy slows down (even if they didn’t actually get stuck and merely were busy for a month) then they don’t know how to get it back and be super interested again.

After people get stuck, for whatever reason, they have a situation with some unsolved problems. What then happens typically is they try to solve those problems. And fail. Repeatedly. They try to get unstuck a bunch and it doesn’t work (or it does work, and then quite possibly no one even notices what happened or regards it as a plateau or being stuck). Usually if people are going to succeed at solving a problem they do it fast. If you can’t solve a problem within a week, will a month or year help? Often not. If you knew how to solve it, you’d solve it now. So if you’re stuck or plateauing it means all your regular methods of solving problems didn’t work. You had enough time to try everything you know how to do and that still didn’t work. Some significant new idea, new creativity, new method, etc, is needed. And people don’t know how to persistently and consistently pursue that in an organized effective way – they can just wait and hope for a Eureka that usually never comes, or go on with their life and hope somehow, someway, something ends up helping with the problem or they find other stuff to do in life instead.

People will try a bunch of times to solve a problem. They aren’t stuck quietly, passively, inactively. They don’t like the problem(s) they’re stuck on. They try to do something about it. This repeated failure takes a toll on their morale. They start questioning their mental capacity, their prospects for a great life, etc. They get demoralized and pessimistic. Some people last much longer than others, but you can see why this would often happen eventually.

And people who are living with this problem they don’t like, and this recurring failure, often turn to evasion and rationalization. They lie to themselves about it. They say it’s a minor problem, or it’s solved. They find some way not to think about it or not to mind it. But this harms their own integrity, it’s a deviation from reason and it opens the door to many more deviations from reason. This often leads to them falling apart in a big way and getting much worse than they were previously.

And people often want to go do something else where their pre-existing methods of thinking/learning/etc work, so they can have success instead of failure. So they avoid the stuff they are stuck on (after some number of prior failures which varies heavily from just a couple to tons). This is a bad idea when they are stuck on something important to their life and end up avoiding the issue by spending their time on less important stuff.

So there’s a common pattern:

  1. Progress. They use their existing methods of making progress and make some progress.

  2. Stuck. They run into some problems which can't be solved with their pre-existing methods of thinking, learning, problem solving, etc.

  3. Staying stuck. They try to get unstuck a bunch and fail over and over.

  4. Dishonesty. They don’t like chronic unsolved problems, being stuck, failing so much, etc. So they find some other way to think about it, other activities to do, etc. And they don’t like the implications (e.g. that they’ve given up on reason and BoI-style progress) so they are dishonest about that too.

  5. Falling apart. The dishonesty affects lots of stuff and they get worse than when they started in various ways.


Elliot Temple on August 19, 2017

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