From the Competency Plateau to Mastery Mountain

Mastering any skill is a long process filled with learning, practice, and failure. Without learning, all practice will do is ingrain bad habits. If don’t practice, everything you learn will fall right out of your head. And if you never risk failure, you’re hobbling your learning. You need all three, otherwise you plateau.

The slow climb to mastery mountain usually starts with a gentle slope. As you rise in skill, you’ll meet many hikers along the way. At this point, everyone’s a dabbler. There are no real stakes involved. This part of the climb tends to be fun, unless some jerk is hiding in the bushes throwing stones at other people. At this stage, harsh criticism is neither welcome nor helpful – we’ll come to that later.

If you keep at it, you’ll reach the competency plateau. The work is still fun and comfortable. Your skill may even make you money at this stage, because it’s finally good enough that people will pay for it. You’ll have much congenial company here, but don’t fool yourself: most people resting on their laurels aren’t going anywhere. There are three types of people who climb no further:

1. Dabblers are the people who’ve tried something for long enough to figure out they didn’t like it enough to continue. They’re often distracted by far more attractive mountains on the horizon, so they climb down and make the slow ascent up some other track. However, all mountains look blue on the horizon. If you turn from them as they turn to muddy grey, you’re turning away from reality to chase a dream. If you want to turn a dream into reality, you need to grasp the jagged rocks ahead and start climbing.

2. Hobbyists are perfectly happy staying on the plateau because they’re doing it as an escape from their real jobs. Hobbyists are generally chill, so it’s best to leave them to do their own thing. Again, harsh criticism is often not welcome here. Hobbies are great, so don’t come down on someone for not taking something seriously because they’re just having fun.

3. Hacks either keep to themselves, turning out a decent living with competent work, or are pernicious “gurus” who offer to teach you how to climb the mountain ahead, even though they’ve never conquered it themselves. Beware the latter, because he is either a dunce who doesn’t know how awful he is, or is out to scam you. Though, if you only want to learn how to be a competent hack yourself, he has much to teach you. He’s this guy:

There are several reasons people turn away from mastery mountain. The gear might be too expensive, or you might not have the time to truly dedicate yourself to it, but most barriers to climbing are mental. For one, it’s full of sharp rocks and sheer cliffs. Fear takes many forms: fear of not taking enough supplies (such as making enough money to survive while you’re climbing), fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of never making the summit. Your brain is telling you to climb back down because the competency plateau is free of risk.

If you have higher aspirations (though it’s not wrong if you don’t), you can’t let those fears take over, because most of them aren’t even real. Fear of failure? If you’re not climbing a literal mountain, failure is not going to literally kill you.

Your brain will play tricks on you. The mountain may look taller than it is, or due to a cloud (of ego and ignorance) you might not see the mountain at all. In the former case, you may give up because you can only imagine yourself ascending to that height if you learn to fly, which is impossible, so you might as well not bother – rather than looking straight ahead to footholds ahead and taking the first step. In the latter case, you may end up one of those assholes who ridicules anyone who sets their sights higher, because as far as you’re concerned, there’s no mountain to climb at all. Don’t be that guy.

Stop relying entirely on yourself, and look up the mountain to find your teachers. The masters tend to live pretty far up there – they may be too high to hear your call – but sometimes you can find the path they left behind. If it’s a path well traveled, for example if there are tons of books written on the subject, it’s a little easier to follow. You could also find others making the slow ascent ahead of you and ask them to help you along the way.

This is where critique is your friend. Now, you have to understand that if you’re asking help from someone climbing ahead of you, they may have little patience for pleasantries, and even less patience if you don’t fucking listen. They might even loose pebbles on your head – try not to take it personally, because they’re trying to help you. Your first crits, especially if you don’t know what to expect, are going to be rough.

The climbers you try to follow will probably tell you how you’re fucking up, and this is where most people stall. There’s nothing wrong with heading back to base camp, having a good cry, and having another go once you’ve recovered from the setback. However, most people go right back down to the plateau, complain to all their friends about how those climbers are jerks, then go on to convince themselves that there’s no mountain at all, so those climbers are stupid jerks for trying to climb at all.

Avoid those people, and the camps (or hotels) they set up on the plateau. They either form happy little circle-jerks where no criticism is allowed, or return with their “wisdom from the mountain” and try to sell you a load of horseshit (again, see video above). So, how do you tell who has good advice and who doesn’t? The people with the advice you need are where you want to be.

Climbing a mountain, whether a figurative or literal one, is a risk. You’ll hear plenty voices telling you not to climb at all, by some who think they have your best interests at heart, or by those who don’t want you to succeed. Comfort is the antithesis of greatness, whether it be in art or athletics. Don’t listen to people who claim art is easy, who offer formulas and simple unbreakable rules, or tell you not to strive to create something new because “everything’s been done before.” If you want to try something, there’s only one thing you need to hear, “It’s worth a go.” If it fails, you’ve learned something, and gained perspective you wouldn’t have had if you’d never taken the risk.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

6 thoughts on “From the Competency Plateau to Mastery Mountain

  1. I seem to be stuck halfway up a cliff on the mountainside, and it’s infuriating to hear the catcalls from the hacks on the plateau below. They have conquered the mountain horizontally, like the twit in the film, and they laugh at me because I am making no progress along the x-axis.

    Unfortunately, most of the people who actually have climbed my particular mountain, and can tell me how it’s done, are dead.

    1. Well, as a non-dead fellow climber (though I haven’t yet climbed far) I can tell you this much: there’s one sure way to fall off that cliff, and that is if you stop climbing. If you let yourself dangle there until your arms get tired and give out, after you recover, it feels like you’re starting from the bottom again. So keep as much momentum going as you can. Keep writing.

  2. The mountain I’m trying to climb – because we each pick our own mountain – is coming along nicely.

    There are ways to climb, even if you need leg braces and walking sticks that adjust as I do, and a backpack with a built-in stool so you can stop and rest.

    The way was well-supplied with books when I started; I find fewer and fewer that I need read as I go. Now I’m limited almost completely to writing the instruction manuals as I walk, because they only apply to this one mountain.

    Lovely images.


    1. Thank you. I could definitely use a walking stick and backpack with a built-in stool as well.

      I found my current problem (aside from building my climbing muscles) is that I have a mountain in front of the peak I’m aiming for. The one I need to climb first is building a portfolio so I can support my writing with graphic art, because I decided the leasure I want to take writing is more important than making money from it. It’s the “be your own patron” model, by working on a “lesser” art to support your “greater” art.

      I suppose my model for that is my father, who makes all his money teaching and programming and spends all his money glassblowing and deep-sea diving. I’ve not encountered a fuller life than his, at least in person. I have a long way to go, especially when it comes to juggling more than one ball at a time, but at least I know it can be done.

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