What is the Plateau Effect?

After the Great Recession, there is the Great Stuckness.

Sure, the unemployment rate seems under control, it's been a while since a major bank or brokerage went belly up, the Dow is soaring, and even the housing market is showing signs of life. But you probably don't feel like things are getting better.

Why? Maybe you're a young couple with a small child living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, or San Francisco. Where is your next move? Good luck affording a house in the city. Maybe you have a job with a passable salary, but you know you will never get a promotion because the boss is never leaving -- who leaves a paying job these days? That probably makes you one of the 55 percent of Americans who are unsatisfied at work. Or maybe you have a job offer in another city, but you simply can't take it because you are one of the 10 million American homeowners with a mortgage that's under water, and you could never sell your home.

In other words, you are stuck. Treading water, perhaps, but not going anywhere. Working harder and harder and getting less for the effort.

That's okay, it's only natural, we argue in our new book, The Plateau Effect. In fact, getting stuck is a force of nature as real as gravity. And the good news is that you can overcome these plateaus.

When we set out to write about The Plateau Effect several years ago, The Great Recession was the farthest thing from our mind. Though our book is full or tips and tricks that help people break out of bad financial habits, thanks to Bob's role as consumer advocate for NBC News, The Plateau Effect is much bigger than money, or economics.

Plateaus occur naturally, when we learn to play piano, when we try to lose weight or gain muscle, when we fall in love, heck, even when we fall to the ground (physicists call that 'terminal velocity'). In everything we do, there is success followed by stuckness. Beginners luck, followed by sophomore slump.

Why is this? There are scores of reasons, but here's one: Our bodies are biologically wired to become numb to things. The overwhelming smell of garlic, or of a boy's locker room, disappears with magical quickness if stand still for a few moments thanks to a process called acclimation. As both predators and preys, it's best that our noses notice changes in the environment, so we are wired to quickly ignore that which is constant. And so, like our sense of smell, we grow numb to everything around us -- our spouse, our customers, our Spanish teacher.

All these responses trace the shape of the front half of a bell-curve, a shape we saw hundreds of times in high school math. When you feel most stuck in life, you should take comfort in this graph, because it tells you that you aren't doing anything wrong.

The advice you usually receive at this crucial moment is: "Just try harder. Just Do More." But those who understand The Plateau Effect know this is often the worst advice you can give or take. In fact, to twist a popular phrase, often the best advice simply, "Just DON'T Do it."

In The Plateau Effect, we feature eight varieties of mistakes people make when they feel stuck, and the antidote for each. For example: there are great efforts under way around the planet to master the element of time, to discover the precise minute when it is best for you to exercise, or to eat dinner, or to memorize those next 10 Arabic phrases. This Quantified Self movement teaches precisely that you can achieve far greater results with far less effort if you simply master your sense of timing.

Likewise, one antidote to numbness is attention, perhaps the most scarce element in the world, and growing more scarce all the time. Another is what we call a "splash of diversity." Professional sniffers use coffee beans to shock their olfactory nerves out of their plateau-induced daze. What can be your shock at work, with your husband or wife, with your music lessons?

The law of The Plateau Effect works like this: In every success, the seeds of failure are sown. Everything works, until it doesn't work. Every training method, even political idea, every passion eventually runs its course. We are terrible at changing course, however. How many times have you heard a flailing colleague insist, "But this worked before!"

Being stuck is a dreadful feeling, as is being part of something else that is stuck: a company that is neither growing, nor shrinking, but instead slowly dying; our political system, with its violent lurches back and forth that collectively produce nothing but sound and fury; our country, no longer the world's great power -- just look at our subway systems or bridges -- but not ready to give up the title, either.

Mastering The Plateau Effect will bring you hope in all these realms. You don't have to be stuck by your entrenched boss, or in a loveless marriage, or 10 pounds heavier than you want to be. You simply have to learn the secrets The Plateau Effect has waiting for you.

Bob Sullivan and Herbert Thompson are the authors of The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success. With more than 40 years of experience between them researching, writing, and analyzing systems and human nature, their new book helps you bust through the plateaus in your own life.

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