The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success

One of the challenges in reading The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success is figuring how to classify it.  Amazon has it ranked mainly in applied psychology, but also time management and inexplicable personal finance.  In some ways it is all of the above and more.  In fewer than 300 pages, the authors reference myriad different areas of science, mathematics, psychology and more; in the effort to show the reader how they can elevate themselves from the stuff in life that glues them to the status quo.

With that, the premise of the book is that the plateau effect is something that affects everyone.  We all have our ups and down in life, relationships, work and more.  The book attempts to help the reader identify plateaus in their life, in order to break through them.

While a plateau is often simply flat terrain, the authors are all over the terrain in the book.  They quote and reference liberally from science, statistics, life sciences, psychology, ethics, information technology and much more.  From that end, the book is a fascinating and insightful read.

At the start of the book, the authors use the term acclimation to refer to the plateaus that many of us reach. This is the inability to notice changes in the environment around us.  To a degree, acclimation is a critical element of our lives.  If everything was brand new, life would be overwhelming; both to our senses and psyche. The downside is that this acclimation often leads us to accepting things the way they are, staying at the plateau, getting stuck and the inability to move forward.

The authors note that a real plateau means that you have stopped growing and that your mind and senses are being dulled by sameness; by a routine that sucks the life and soul out of you.  Plateaus force you to make bad decisions and feel desperate.  By understanding the force and tapping into it, you can get more out of life with less effort, and feel more in tune to your existence.  If this scares you that the book sounds like a new-age title, relax, it is far from it, thankfully.

Chapter 3 is one of the many fascinating sections in the book where the authors detail the greedy algorithm, where the locally optimal choice is what is generally preferred. They tie this into the Gekko mantra of greed being good.  But note that research has shown that long-term greed is good, but short-term greed, the type that maximizes the here and now seems to work for a while but almost always leads to a plateau.  And as you realize, plateaus are bad.

Chapter 5 details flow mechanisms, step functions and choke points. Author Hugh Thompson is a mathematician and its obvious this chapter is his baby.  A choke point is a part of a system that breaks first and slows everything else down.  The book notes that a common cause of plateaus is not recognizing when and where choke points will occur. 

Chapter 6 is another fascinating chapter that details people’s inability to effectively deal with risk.  The example given is around shark attacks.  While the risk of shark attack is extraordinarily low, the media often makes it seem like an epidemic, and the gullible populace overreacts.  The authors give many examples of where people don’t comprehend risk and statistics.  The authors note that people buy lottery tickets, often described as a tax on the mathematically disinclined, despite knowing the odds. They also write that due to various factors, people and society have become overly risk-averse, not realizing how risky that is.

While not new, chapter 7 details the problems with multitasking and its illusions of productivity. The authors quote Jordon Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke who states that multitasking is actually a misnomer.  He terms itrapid toggling between tasks.  The downside to this rapid toggling is that people become less effective and productive.  The reality they show is that people can’t multitask. 

While the book is indeed a fascinating and valuable read, some readers may find it somewhat frustrating that the authors at times can seem like they are all over the place, quoting and integrating different facets of science and psychology.  While the theme of the book is plateaus, there is not always a discernible sense of unity between all of the examples. 

Another lacking is the shortage of prescriptive actions the reader can take. For the reader who may be indifferent to their need for change, the book may not be of full value to then.  It would have been appreciated if the authors could have created action items and exercises for each chapter.

But perhaps the best advice is on the 3rd to the last page of the book. The authors note that if your company is stuck and has plateaued, and unable to get past some vexing problems. What should you do?  Tell the type A’s in the room to be quiet for a while and set out some frontline introvert an ask for their advice.  Giving voice to the quietest person in the room might be the most unique exercise a firm undertakes.

With that, The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success is an extremely stimulating read.  For the reader who wants to grow and move off their plateau, this will certainly help them.  The book promises to help the reader unstick themselves from the things in life that weigh them down.  It certainly lives up to its promise and makes for a fascinating read.

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