A higher designation, a better salary, a more meaningful role or even an advanced skill set – the desire for more in our work lives, is real. There is always an invisible ladder we are climbing, even if we make choices that seem like we’re scaling down. Why? Because a plateau or lean period is considered unacceptable.
However, plateaus are key to learning and growth. To understand it better, researchers draw upon the sigmoid function (‘S-curve’) – a mathematical model. It maps progress over time. When drawn on a graph, the curve resembles an S tilted forward. Many processes follow this pattern: a slow start, an accelerated middle, and leveling towards the end. In terms of career advancement, once you push past the leveling place or plateau, you begin a new S-curve—one that builds upon the last. It’s continuous, then.
According to business strategist Jenny Blake, to resist plateaus, breaks the organic path of learning. Though you may feel bored or slowed down, it’s an opportunity to assess and recharge. She says, “Dismissing periods of career deceleration at the top of the curve is like preventing the race car driver from refueling, changing tires, or sipping water at pit stop.” End result: burnout.
How can we make the most of our plateaus then? Here are three steps.
Ask: What’s working for me here?
As sticky, non-stimulating and confusing plateaus may be, there is always something going right. We urge you to find the silver linings! It’s not just about feeling good. Called the ‘broaden and build theory’, research shows that focusing on the positives broadens your sense of possibility, and opens your mind. This in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that provide value in other areas of your life. What better way to get the momentum going?
Ask: Where do I need to get to?
Engage in some rich visioning. Having a clear mental picture of what is calling out in your professional field, brings forth energy and resourcefulness. It’s a technique athletes use extensively, to visualize success – each move, how they feel, embodying their sport et al. Brain studies reveal that mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. This way, the brain is getting trained for actual performance. Starting point: pick a next step that you are curious and excited about.
Ask: How can I test the waters?
This is the moment of truth – turning vision into action. The idea is to run pilot tests, and know if the direction is right for you. It’s akin to taking mini-steps, without feeling the overwhelm of big transitions or leaps. This could involve speaking to role models, doing internships, taking classes or starting a side business. Blake recommends three criteria for a pilot test.
- Enjoyment: Do you actually like this new area?
- Expertise: Can you become skilled at it, and do you want to make the effort to do so?
- Expansion: Is there market opportunity for you to do more of this?
As author Leonard Koren says, “New things emerge out of nothingness.” Your career plateau could be fertile. Give it due time and attention. Sow the seeds for your next big innings.