Learning Plateaus

I’m thrilled that Rosa has chosen Lifelong Learning for the Ho’ohana Community this month, because learning is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Four months ago my family and I moved to Hawai’i. We’d waited too long to make this move, trapped by a chicken-and-egg dilemma”it is difficult to get a job here until you move, and making the leap of faith to move is difficult without a job. Finally we resolved the stalemate by moving with the intention to take whatever jobs came to hand first, gradually developing the relationships that would lead to doing the work that is our passion.

For me, this meant accepting a position with a well-respected hotel brand doing something I could never have imagined myself doing. Ostensibly I give out hotel and Island information; in actuality I get paid for convincing guests to spend 90 minutes of their vacation hearing about the hotel’s interval ownership program. I thought of myself as someone who wasn’t good at sales, especially not the kind you need to make in 120 seconds. Surprisingly, by the end of my first full month on the job, I was the top performer in my group. Five years ago that would not have been possible, because five years ago I was still in the grip of some terrible Enemies of Learning.

Of course, I didn’t have a clue that I was getting in the way of my own success as a learner. In many ways I was and am devoted to learning. I love to read “sideways”, finding connections in other fields to the questions I’m dealing with in my own. I’d enjoyed taking on new assignments in my career, ones that required me not only to grow in my management skills, but even to master whole new functional areas. At one point my job assignment required me to learn Portuguese, and within a year I was fluent enough to attend business meetings and social engagements at which no one spoke English.

The problem I had wasn’t with learning something genuinely new. The Enemies of Learning showed up to prevent me from make real leaps into mastery in disciplines where I already considered myself knowledgeable!

Fortunately, as an aspiring entrepreneur I was told by a friendly VC that he wasn’t convinced I had what it took to be an effective start-up CEO. I asked him what it would take to convince him—and he introduced me to Bob Dunham and directed me to enroll in a 2-year program offered by Bob’s company Enterprise Performance. In May 2000 at the opening conference of the program, Bob handed each of us a copy of George Leonard’s book Mastery with instructions to read the first chapter for our homework that night. Bob further told us that his intention over the next two years was to rebuild our competencies as managers and leaders beginning from a new set of distinctions and somatic practices, and that since we were not as yet in a position to assess the credibility of his claims, he was asking us to commit to faithfully doing the assignments and practices as he requested. He used the phrase “dignified beginner” to describe the stance he was asking us to take.

Now this posed a bit of a problem for me. I was already teaching leadership seminars and had definitely come to the program with the skeptical attitude that I would sift through each tidbit he offered, comparing it against my own ideas, taking what I liked and leaving the rest. Bob had my number.

So did George Leonard. I read the entire book that night and lay awake in bed for hours. I conceded that my ego and identity as a competent manager and leader would likely cause me to argue my existing opinion rather than be open to learning something new.  My attachment to what I knew was the Enemy of what I could learn.

Reading Leonard’s book, I saw a second Enemy in myself. One of my strengths is that learning is typically easy for me. The shadow side of this strength is that I hate reaching the long plateau that comes sooner or later. My tendency is to behave as what Leonard calls a Dabbler. Rather than persist past the plateau to a new level of mastery, I’d rather learn to do something adequately, then jump to something new for the thrill of climbing that steep learning curve.

By morning I reached a compromise with myself. I would do everything Bob asked, as he asked it, for one year. After that year I would evaluate what I’d learned and decided what my commitment would be for the second year.

As you probably suspect, long before the end of that first year I was a total convert. The learning experience was exhilarating and liberating. I became a better manager and a much better learner. I persisted through all the plateaus of the two year program.

Which leads me to confess that I’ve already reached the plateau phase of my new job”I find myself daydreaming about other opportunities. I’d say one learning objective for me this month would be to bring discipline and focus to the plateau, to reach out to others who can teach me what I need to rise to the next level. I haven’t learned to love the plateaus yet, but I’ve learned I can persist on them.

I’ve also discovered that it helps to have the company of a good teacher and members of a learning community to walk those long stretches.  Anyone else care to declare what learning plateaus they’re on and bond together for moral support this month?

Postcript by Rosa
: You can always find Beth Robinson, our Guest Author today, within the right-column listing of our Ho’ohana Online Community; She is the author of Execukos. Her ho’ohana is to help leaders, organizations and communities develop their wisdom.

Related post: Mastery: Permission to be oh so human.