In a client meeting I inquired about a mutual acquaintance I had not seen in a long time. My client said, “He plateaued early.”

I discovered our mutual friend was tracking in new orbits now; new friends and acquaintances, new hangouts, new everything. Long term relationships, plans, and priorities – and all that goes with them – had been allowed to wither and lie dormant or dead. 

Why? “He couldn’t keep up.”

This bothered me. Our friend had always impressed me as being quite smart, a hail-fellow-well-met type of manager who cared much for those in his charge. It didn’t make sense. I needed more.

A couple of phone calls had us back in contact with one another and a coffee meeting was added to the calendar. A longer than planned conversation in that coffee meeting revealed that he had indeed not been able to “keep up” with the needs of his business and had aimed his sights lower. He felt “shamed” and decided to “look for a new playground and new playmates,” as he put it. He found less demanding work, less challenging opportunities, less stimulating friends, and moved to another city. He was not particularly happy. He had become comfortable in his new world.

What had happened?

This man is smart, makes a good impression, had always cared about his people and approached life with a hearty, friendly, and congenial manner. Unfortunately, the important word in that sentence was “impression.” He also had always been focused on making a good impression, even to the point of disguising his weaknesses and his lack of knowledge in some important areas of business and life. He had the smarts and personality to keep this charade alive, until he couldn’t.

He had believed a terrible lie: looking good (versus being real), plus his intelligence would always carry the day. They won’t and they didn’t. It wasn’t that he couldn’t keep up; he didn’t keep up.

It all caught up with him. He plateaued early. It didn’t have to happen.

What’s a person to do?

It’s all too easy to be critical of my friend. Our detached hindsight makes diagnosis overly simple. “Overly simple” because we don’t get to see how it all developed as time and life progressed. I doubt there was a turning point event and am more inclined towards a thousand little everyday decisions that led to misinformed views of success, self and the step-wise path of personal improvement.

This was not The Peter Principle taking effect, it was an abdication.

Avoiding the early plateau

  • Embrace reality and admit imperfection. It has a 100% infection rate within the human population. This helps with understanding the real struggle: progress, not perfection.  Sociologist Brené Brown rightly reminds us, “You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
  • Take inventory. Every human has inherent strengths and weaknesses. The idea is to invest in and build on your strengths and to mitigate your weaknesses, not hide them.
  • Have a plan. If you don’t have a plan you’ll be part of someone else’s plan. You’re not their priority, unless you’re a threat. Then you’re a target. Keep your plan relevant.
  • Be aware and curious. Have an appropriate level of concern about and well-informed interest in what’s going on in the world, particularly those things that could effect you and your interests. Curiosity keeps you moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things.
  • Understand that direction is more important than speed. If you’re headed in the wrong direction, speed is not your friend.
  • Don’t settle. Good is the enemy of great. Then OK becomes the enemy of good. Settling is a slippery slope.

Relatively few people live great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good, or even OK life. They plateau early.

In Other Words…

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.” ― Brené Brown

“Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

“Accept yourself, love yourself, and keep moving forward. If you want to fly, you have to give up what weighs you down.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

“I know it seems hard sometimes but remember one thing. Through every dark night, there’s a bright day after that. So no matter how hard it get, stick your chest out, keep ya head up…. and handle it.” ― Tupac Shakur

“But better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.” ― Khaled Hosseini

In The Word…

“Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before officials of low rank.” – Proverbs 22:29