This Is Why You Get Worse Before You Get Better
Improvement is more like a sand dune than a mountain.
Originally published August 12, 2021, in Better Humans.
A few months ago, I visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado with one of my best friends from childhood.
After a night of camping that we were thoroughly unprepared for (we had a broken tent, no firewood, and our campsite feast consisted of stale peanut butter and pretzel sandwiches), we each downed a can of iced coffee that we had packed and headed off into the dunes for the hike that we’d driven over 15 hours to complete.
10 minutes into our ascent, we were ready to quit.
What we quickly learned was that hiking up a sand dune is nothing like hiking up a mountain. Not only does the sand provide a slippery, uneven walking surface, but it also slides under you as you push off during your incline. The harder you push yourself further, the more you risk pushing yourself down the mountain just as fast as you try to go up it.
When scaling a dune, all sand feels like quicksand.
We were pushing hard to climb, but it felt like we were sliding downhill. All that was left to do really was put our heads down, push as hard as we possibly could, and see what happened.
Sounds a bit like life, doesn’t it?
Your Limits Assault Your Ego
It’s not sand dunes that expose your character, but limits. In times where we are faced with our limits (be it physical or mental), our ego is severely threatened. The way that you respond to this attack on the ego is what either builds strong character or exposes weak character.
On the sand dunes, my initial desire was to quit and dry heave my way all the back to the car. I mean, I’m a competitive martial artist who competes with the best in the world, I shouldn't be tired from climbing a freaking sand dune. I’m an athlete.
These thoughts and more pounded my brain as I huffed and puffed on halfway up a sand dune. I was more than beaten — I was angry. Thank goodness I had a friend with me who actually possessed some genuine self-awareness.
When we both began to struggle, he jokingly shouted, “Let’s pick up the pace!” as he sunk down into the dune. We didn’t “pick up the pace”, but we sure as hell kept going. We both began to helplessly push our legs into the sand as hard as we physically could. It didn’t matter whether or not we got to the top of the dunes, we just had to try our best to climb the sand that was in front of us.
As we climbed, it really felt like we were going nowhere fast (if anything, it seemed like we were pushing ourselves down the dune), and my lungs started gasping for air. I took a second to catch my breath and examine our progress, and I noticed something that surprised me: we were halfway up the hill.
Suddenly, I wasn’t nearly as tired as I was before. My friend and I were now motivated to keep climbing, and so we did. We climbed the dune in front of us, and then the next one, and the next one, and eventually all the way up to the top of the tallest dune at the park. In total, we climbed up about 7 miles, uphill and downhill to the peak elevation of 755 feet above our starting point.
We weren’t climbing Everest and it definitely wasn’t the hardest hike in the world, but for 2 Midwestern kids on their first camping trip ever, we felt pretty accomplished.
Are You Really Getting Worse?
People often evaluate their own performance with a strict, black or white mindset. They’re either good or bad, skills are either increasing or decreasing, and they’re either happy or sad about this. Especially when confronted with plateaus, the rapid decrease in the rate of improvement will often create the sensation of a decrease in progress.
As a lifelong athlete, I’ve trained myself to see everything as binary. The problem is, my ego distorts my view of myself from the facts of my progress.
The facts are, it’s far more likely that you’ll experience burnout or a plateau than a genuine decrease of skill level in a particular domain. We naturally want to get better faster, but the longer you do something, the harder it is to get better at it. The higher you get on the sand dune, the dune becomes steeper and the elevation effects become more intense.
The more experience you have with a skill, the more frequent your plateaus are.
The plateau is where most people quit. Seth Godin calls this “the dip”, and it’s the defining factor that separates good from great and great from the best in the world.
But the truth is, you’re not “getting worse”, you’re just realizing how much better you can be at the given skill. Your skills aren’t decreasing, you’re just being exposed to a new world of skill that you previously didn’t know existed. I wasn’t sliding down the sand dune, I was just realizing how much further I had to climb.
When you factor in the innate difficulty to achieve progress along with the mental warfare that you encounter when experiencing plateaus, it’s no wonder you feel like you’re getting worse. Plus, if you’re in a competitive environment, you will feel like you’re decreasing in skill as you elevate with the people around you.
Though your feelings are valid, your feelings about how you’re doing at something do not always depict the reality of your progression.
Plateaus Will Never Go Away
So what’s the solution for when you feel like you’re getting worse at something? How do you overcome plateaus?
It’s easier said than done, but the primary solution is emotional detachment from the quality of your performance. The plateaus will exist no matter how long you stick with a given skill. The only thing that changes is your ability to navigate the plateaus. If you’ve experienced a plateau many times, you’re more likely to be able to navigate through it. The first plateau is the hardest.
There are a lot of things in life that you can devote your limited emotional energy to, but your skill progression should not be directly tied with your state of wellbeing. This is what they told me on the first day of therapy, and it opened my world.
Progress plateaus are just problems, and problems just need to be solved. They don’t need to be obsessed over. With persistence, good problem-solving skills, and emotional support, you can get through even the most endless plateaus. It could be argued that the most difficult part of the plateau is the psychological effects of it, not the effects it has on your performance. If you can control more of your mind, you can control much more of your life.
In some cases, persistence is not the solution to your performance stagnation. If you keep trying to improve but just can’t grit your way past the plateau, the solution might be to take a more laissez-faire approach. This means dialing back your efforts or refocusing them into specific areas of the skill. This means resting and reassessing.
Regardless of your solution to your plateau, the most important lesson that you can learn from experiencing a plateau is that you will never stop experiencing plateaus. We all plateau in everything we do in life. Stop avoiding that fact and start getting better at addressing the problem. Don’t quit, take breaks. Don’t get angry, refocus your energy. Don’t stop working, slow down.
The road to improvement is a long, arduous sand dune. You might as well learn how to navigate the pitfalls.
Though the sand dunes were tough, I’ve also experienced plateaus and sensations of losing my skills in all areas of my life. Recently, I competed in an important Jiu-Jitsu tournament for several thousand dollars, and I lost. I felt like crap about myself and I definitely felt like I was getting worse at Jiu-Jitsu.
The week afterward, I had the worst week of training that I’d had in months. I couldn’t help but wonder, have I lost my edge? Am I on the decline? Have I hit my peak?
While I can’t know for sure, to me it seems more like I’m experiencing a plateau as a result of overworking myself than a true loss of skill. My problem isn’t a lack of passion, my problem is that I care too much. I’m feeling burned out, run-down, and physically overextended, and I’m not getting better. However, I don’t feel like I’ve lost any skill. I’m stuck in the mud, but I know in my mind that it’s mud, not cement.
Like every plateau I’ve experienced in my life, there’s a way to spike the graph. The solution isn’t to panic. The solution is to take a deep breath, a little break to refocus my mind, and then to keep persisting at my skills with a refocused and energized mind. Just like on the sand dunes a few months ago, I’m probably going to feel like I'm getting worse while I’m getting better.
I can either view that as a sign that I should quit or as a sign that I’ve chosen something that’s difficult enough to be truly worth it.
Other Articles Published In the Last 7 Days
A Book That Everyone Should Read
If you’re a person who does anything that requires deep focus, you need to read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This book is basically a “how-to” guide on the process to reach a state of optimal performance, increased happiness, and mental wellbeing. People are so obsessed with (especially in the martial arts world) being the best that they forget that in order to be the best, we need to cultivate an optimal mental experience.
You don’t perform your best under pressure, you perform your best in “flow”. This book shows you how to get there.
As always, if you enjoyed what you read, please share, tell your friends, or reshare the article from Medium. It helps me more than you know.
Wishing you the best,