I had this friend once that was really into juggling. He wasn’t that good, but for some reason he had always wanted to become a really good juggler. The kind of guy that would be able to pick up any three or four objects and juggle them for an amount of time without any problem. He’d bought several DVDs on how to juggle, and even took a workshop once at some juggling school. I hadn’t been aware that there even was juggling schools.
He studied for several weeks, and finally he was comfortable enough to start juggling in front of strangers. He usually got a pretty good reception, and for a while he even went downtown where they allowed various performers to do their thing on the street in hopes for a few spare coins. On some nights, he developed a pretty big crowd. But most of the time, there were only a few people that would stay and watch for more than a few minutes.
After a while he noticed the same people would pass by, make a comment like “oh, there’s that juggler, he’s pretty good,’ and then they’d keep walking. It got to the point where most of the people that went downtown on a regular basis got to know him, and acknowledged that he was a highly skilled juggler, but didn’t hang around to watch him. He thought about traveling to neighboring cities, where they hadn’t yet been exposed to his juggling skills, but then he began to question his whole reason for becoming a skilled juggler.
At first he just wanted to juggle, and he had some vague imagination of juggling in front of people. Then when he got a taste of how good it felt to actually do that, he wanted to juggle in front of bigger and bigger crowds. But when it go to the point where he was thinking of actively seeking out bigger and bigger crowds, rather than just spontaneously juggling wherever he happened to be, it became more of a chore, or a job, than fun hobby. Soon he went back to only juggling whenever he happened to think about it, instead of purposely setting out to juggle in front of weekend crowds.
It reminds me a little bit of the law of diminishing returns. When you first put in a little bit of effort, you get a lot of results. But as you start to put in more and more effort, you start to get less and less results. If you’ve ever gone on a diet you know what I’m talking about. It’s pretty easy to lose that first couple of pounds, but after that it just keeps getting harder and harder. Eventually you hit a plateau, and if you keep at it, your successes are really a serious of longer and longer plateaus, with intermittent jumps in success levels.
There’s even been books written about how the plateau is really where all your skills and abilities are forged. If you look at life a series of long plateaus, with intermittent jumps in skill level, it makes I easier to keep on moving forward when it often appears as though you aren’t making any progress.
This structure may have some kind of biological origin. Evolution is thought to be a series of plateaus, with intermittent jumps in mutations that over time significantly change a particular species. Even the evolution of language is thought to follow this same pattern. There are certain points in the growth of a language where it changes significantly in a relatively short amount of time, due to a variety of circumstances.
For example, English underwent a huge change around the 1400’s, known as the great tonal shift. The way English vowels are pronounced changed significantly in a couple generations. It is said that somebody speaking English after this tonal shift would not be able to communicate with someone speaking English before this tonal shift.
Even at the quantum level, the energy levels of electrons don’t change from gradually from one energy state to another. There is huge jump (the word “quantum” simply means “discrete”) from one energy level to the next. There is no in between.
It’s as if the whole basis of physical reality follows the model of plateaus in energy levels or states of matter punctuated by large intermittent changes in state. The reason behind all of this is of course a mystery, to even the smartest theoretical physicists. It just seems completely strange, and pretty cool, how whatever law that makes an electron follow the discreet energy level model lead to somebody being on a plateau punctuated by intermittent successes in weight loss.
They say that the universe is a hologram of itself. If you take any small piece of matter, and look at it, it will be of the same structure and makeup as the whole system. Electrons orbiting atomic nuclei behave the same way as planets orbiting a sun. Just like there are discreet energy levels of electrons in a hydrogen atom, there are discreet elliptical orbital paths of the planets in our solar system.
So next time you feel “stuck” on a plateau, know that you are in good company.
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