All big things come from small beginnings. You plant a small seed today. And in a couple of years, you have a huge tree. Though it seems simple. The gap between doing and getting feels intolerable. We know that good things take time. But exactly this delay keeps us away from having good things.
That’s a short overview of the Plateau of Latent Potential.
We think that our progress should be linear. Always up. Always advancing. But the reality is quite different.
We invest a huge deal of money and time to create a project. For a couple of years, there is seemingly zero progress. It’s like you are throwing money in an ever-expanding dent. At a certain point. And only under the condition that you: Persist long enough; Stay disciplined; You have all of that money to throw; You happen to successfully battle the inner doubt, the impostor syndrome, and the frustration of the lack of feedback. You reach a point of breakthrough. A major change.
You are now successful.
People around you are labeling you an overnight success but as much as you try to persuade them that it took you years to reach this current condition. They don’t listen. They romanticize the idea that you transitioned from no one to someone in just a day.
The truth about success – of any kind. Is that it takes time. It takes time to progress. To patiently do the boring fundamentals so you can reach a black belt in the field you want to be recognized for.
As Joshua Medcalf brilliantly mentioned in his small book, Chop Wood Carry Water:
“Everyone wants to build the next Apple or Facebook, nobody wants to sell matches door to door. Everyone wants to become a samurai warrior, but few are willing to faithfully chop wood, carry water.” Joshua Medcalf
This is where the term we’re going to discuss today enters: the Plateau of Latent Potential.
We’ll examine what is the Plateau of Latent Potential. Why is it so damn difficult to cross the plate of latent potential? And, finally, how we can successfully cross it without drawing in self-doubt.
What Is The Plateau of Latent Potential?
Coined by the best-selling author of the ultimate book on habits – Atomic Habits. The Plateau of Latent Potential is a term explaining that a habit or an activity needs to be practiced long enough to break through a certain threshold. This threshold, when crossed. Leads to a place of ultimate awe. Plainly, the results you hoped for finally become a reality.
Depending on the activity. The threshold is different.
For instance, you might need 10 blows to break a big rock but 38 blows to break a huge rock.
And though the final blow is the one that split the rock in two. All of the previous blows were equally important.
Or to quote Jacob Riss, an American journalist:
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” Jacob Riss
Usually, we wrongly attribute success to the most recent deed. To a single act.
Success, of any sort, is a journey. All of your steps count.
Not only the last step. Neither the steps in the middle. But all of them – including the first step.
Visually, the Plateau of Latent Potential looks like this:
We expect that things should happen gradually. That we should receive regular rewards for our efforts. That’s what the “What you think should happen” line represents.
When we think about progress, we imagine a smooth staircase where every next step is with the same level of difficulty. Plus, in every few steps, there is a medal awarded to us.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality is quite different. We often don’t get rewards for months – years even – until a critical threshold is crossed. When this invisible line is passed, we unlock a new level of performance.
All of this means that progress is more like a staircase designed by a drunk architect where every step is disproportionate to the rest of the stairs.
The gap between these two is called The Valley of Disappointment.
The Valley of Disappointment is a lonely place. Not only that nothing exciting happens. But there is usually no one there. It’s only you. Crippled by your inner demons.
Self-doubt is convincing you to abandon the project while self-criticizing is beating you with a club and shouting: “You are not good enough! You will never make it!”
Emotions are not the only ones that are convincing you that what you’re trying to achieve is probably never going to happen. Your rational mind is also taking a stance. From his perspective, there is no sane reason to keep doing what you’re doing.
After all, the lack of progress – the flat line – is convincing enough that what you’re doing is probably never going to work.
These are the main reasons why crossing the Plateau of Latent Potential is so difficult.
But there is something else as well…
Why Is It So Difficult To Cross The Plateau of Latent Potential?
Persisting when you end up alone in the deserted Valley of Disappointment. Pushing through so you can see the fruits of your labor seems hard. But it’s only disguised as such.
Most people fail because they approach their projects the wrong way.
They let their emotions consume them instead of focusing on daily progress.
Let’s unpack my claim with the following example:
Imagine that you want to become a best-selling author. You want to write a book that the general population will consider worthy. Therefore, turn you into a giga-rich writer with a fan base across the whole world.
Are you already imagining big yachts and insultingly large quantities of cash?
Now, let’s ask the other obvious question: How do you become a best-selling author?
That’s right, you write.
Sure, there are plenty of other components that are involved in the process. But that’s the general requirement. You need to write words on paper in order to become a best-selling author.
If you stick long enough with the habit of writing and publishing. Your work will eventually improve and people will find it worthy.
Now, let’s consider that you do, in fact, become a praised author of a book.
What do you think will happen next?
How do you think your day-to-day life will change afterward?
Sure, there will probably be interviews and visits to the library where you’ll sign books for the screaming fans.
But in general, what you’ll continue doing won’t change much.
In other words, you’d have to continue writing.
Since writing got you to a place of success. Keep writing will help you stay in this place.
So, the problem. The main reason people don’t ever cross The Valley of Disappointment and this regard the Plateau of Latent Potential is twofold:
- They don’t pick a task they enjoy.
- They focus more on the rewards rather than on making daily progress.
At the end of the day, you still have to write. Even if you do become an awarded writer. Your daily activities will be the same. Sure, you’ll probably have enough money to quit your job and sustain your life based on sales from the book. But the origin task remains the same: your ability to put words on paper that don’t fundamentally suck.
So, if the main activity is the same regardless of how much money you have in your bank account. And despite how many people enjoy your work. Why not keep writing even if there are no immediate results? You are, after all, enjoying the task, right?
To this, people often respond with the following:
“Yes, but now I have validation. A large number of people find my work valuable and I have enough cash in my bank to not worry about money.”
These are valid arguments, of course. Firstly, to be free creatively, one needs to be free from – free from financial worries, for instance. It’s hard to focus on writing – or something else – when you’re not sure how you’d make enough money for your next meal.
But there is something else. Writing a successful book doesn’t guarantee that you will write another successful book.
People will have higher expectations and this can crush your psyche, not help it.
So what can you do?
How to Cross The Plateau of Latent Potential?
The modern world is constantly trying to convince us that a good life is an easy life.
For people who want to lose weight. Society praises weight loss pills instead of regular workouts.
For people who want to become best-selling authors. Society promotes hiring someone to write the book for you instead of writing it yourself.
For everything seemingly worthy, there is an “easier” version.
But did you notice something?
The thing that is present in all of the above cases? It is this: we focus on the outcome, not on the process.
As I mentioned in the beginning, we want the glory. The fame. The big houses. The shiny cars. But few of us are willing to do the hard work – chop wood, carry water.
A quick example from my own life as a writer online:
When I first started publishing articles online. Every time I’ve published one. I impatiently refreshed my stats showcasing how many people were reading it. I assumed that since I’ve done something now, I should get something… now.
I viewed my writing as Newton’s third law of motion. Namely, that “for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Things in real life are quite different from what’s mentioned in textbooks.
Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions.
I realized that writing 1 article won’t make me a writer. Nor writing 10.
But writing 100? 200? 300? People perceive you quite differently.
Moreover, you perceive yourself, and the process differently.
This is the part of the post where I stop with the anecdotal claims and start laying a framework.
I forge a plan that will help you cross the Plateau of Latent Potential.
So, here are 7 things:
Certain Things In Life Should Be Hard
If you’re living in the fantasy world of social media. You might think that the people who share the insides of their perfectly aligned refrigerators or the equally well-sculpted bodies are living in paradise. Not at all. Whenever I see something that’s beautifully presented, all I can see is the sweat – the workouts, the lack of sleep, the money expended.
Materialism in society and in our heads convinces us that we need products to be happy. That we need stuff. And these stuff, should make our life easier. That life should be easier.
But getting more stuff leads to wanting even more – that’s why we end up buying things we don’t need.
You don’t need stuff. You don’t need easy. You’ll find greater joy after a sweaty workout. Not in a self-prescribed portion of weight-loss pills while browsing the life of others online.
Commit To An Ideal
We have a commitment problem. And it makes sense. Committing to something means not doing a bunch of other things.
Here are two examples:
- Committing to a relationship means not involving yourself in other relationships.
- Committing to becoming an artist means not becoming a programmer.
We are scared of trapping ourselves in a particular box because this will constrict our identity. But more importantly, we are afraid if we make the wrong decision about our identity.
You tell yourself: “What if I dedicated my life to becoming an artist but I don’t make it? It will be my fault!”
Therefore, you don’t commit. You just roam around the world doing a variety of things relatively good but never one thing exceptional.
Committing to something. Constraining yourself to a particular task. These are all good things. Not bad things.
Actually, this is the only way you can make something worthwhile. Plus, finally implement good habits into your life thanks to the power of identity-based habits.
Or as Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his book, Existentialism Is a Humanism:
“First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that ‘one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.’” Jean-Paul Sartre
Think Like Olympic Athlete
Do you know how frequent are the Olympics?
No need to google it. They are held every four years.
For Olympic athletes, this means four years of daily exercise routines with seemingly no rewards. You work your ass off for four years to prepare for a sprint, for example, that will take a couple of minutes.
The worst part?
If you don’t win a medal this year. This means that you have to wait – and work – for another four years to have another chance to prove yourself.
Well, isn’t this notoriously painful?
It surely is.
When you enter the Valley of Disappointment. Don’t collapse. Consider this your preparation for the Olympics phase. You have four years to win the medal. What you’ll do daily to get the gold?
Create a List of Good Habits
There is one quote that gets thrown a lot these days. It’s the following line from the book The Writing Life by Annie Dillard:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard
We are nothing else but a sum of our actions.
And our daily actions, are what we call habits.
Few can adequately articulate, and define, their daily actions. The ones who do, are generally more satisfied. More productive than others.
If the lights are off and you’re preparing to submerge into a blissful dream. But if you can’t properly conclude what was done today – it all looks like random actions covered in a mist of busyness. You probably don’t have a clear structure for your day.
You are reactive, instead of proactive.
To stop waiting for things to happen. And start making things.
You can begin by creating a list of good habits. A list of things that should be definitely done by the time you go to bed. Get a habit tracking journal as a companion. It will be of great assistance during the first months.
Patience and Delayed Gratification
Impatience. Also defined as: the feeling that we need to make the world move faster than it can actually move is quite common in us.
I face this treachery feeling inside me daily. For instance, when we’re about to leave the house, the speed I think my son should move when I put on his clothes is quite different from the speed he thinks is appropriate. This discrepancy between the two sometimes makes me lose my mind.
I’m chasing him with a pair of underpants while he’s running naked around the house. He’s having fun while I’m trying not to cry.
Occasionally, I tackle my irritation with the following question: “Why not have a good time. Not ruin my time?” Forcing my son to get ready faster is never a good solution. It usually leads to getting ready slower. What does help is playing along.
It can take us 15 minutes to get ready, instead of 5. But it will be worth it.
Similarly, if you consider becoming a writer a worthy thing. Won’t it be worth pursuing that goal even if it takes you 4 years, instead of 1?
Of course, this means that you’d have to daily practice delayed gratification. But if you choose wisely what to commit to. It won’t feel terrible. You’re still doing what you love doing, right?
Choose Systems Over Goals
Which one is better?
Well, goals immediately position you in a state of defeat.
If we return to the example from above. Since your aim is to become a best-selling author. You can only be happy when you do become such – when you achieve your goal.
Well, isn’t this a terrible way to live your life?
Your whole existence is focused on one potential future event.
But what will happen if the goal is achieved?
Correct. You’ll immediately look for other goals.
Instead of chasing goals, create systems. Thus, focus on writing daily.
You stop focusing on the big potential outcome and you start improving your daily systems. Therefore, you gain pleasure from the small daily actions.
I know, it might sound like a convenient way to trick your mind. But that’s the only path you can follow if you want to live a sane life while slowly crossing the Plateau of Latent Potential.
In the context of becoming a world-famous author. You might assume that by simply writing, you will become such.
We all know that’s not the case.
Writing daily doesn’t mean that what you wrote is going to be good.
Here enters the deliberate practice theory.
You don’t do something in isolation.
- Get feedback.
These three are the core components of deliberate practice.
By following this framework, you’ll become an adaptive thinker and slowly but surely transition from bad to good. And then, from good to great.
As Jim Collins famously wrote in the best-seller, Good to Great:
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.” Jim Collins
Some Closing Thoughts
While most trees grow steadily over the years. That’s not the case with Chinese bamboo trees.
Once you plant the seed, there is seemingly nothing coming out of the ground for the first four years. Then, in the fifth year, something magical happens – the tree begins to grow at an astonishing rate. Within six weeks a bamboo tree can grow to ninety feet.
How is this possible?
The bamboo tree builds extensive root systems underground for the first couple of years. Then, once ready, shoots start to emerge really fast.
We can learn from the bamboo.
Take the first couple of years to establish strong foundations.
Depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Your action plan will vary. But the following are always valid points to consider: Adopt useful mental models and thinking strategies. Start changing your bad habits with good ones. Create a sustainable daily routine that allows you to slowly progress. Learn from the best in the field by reading their books.
These will help you cruise through the Plateau of Latent Potential without letting despair consume you.
Do yourself a favor:
Join The Study Newsletter: A laid back newsletter about very serious ideas from even more serious books – and not only. Great for lifelong learners, creators, & wanderers alike.