The Isthmus of Prowess and the OK Plateau

In 600 B.C., construction began on a paved trackway at the Isthmus of Corinth, which became known as the Diolkos. Wheel ruts of the exact gauge of then-modern wagon wheel axles were built in to the road, so that boats and other heavy industry could be carted from Ionian Sea to the Aegean Sea without having to sail around the Peloponnese peninsula, windy as its headlands were.

Until then, wheel ruts were an annoying fact of ancient life. And would continue to be for millennia thereafter. Wheel ruts dug themselves into the Oregon Trail and other routes to the American West leaving such deep scars that it became difficult for subsequent wagon trains to travel anywhere else on these roads but exactly in these carved out trenches.

When someone feels they are “in a rut,” they are referring, knowingly or not, to this phenomenon of following a predetermined route and being carried forward as if on autopilot.

And the problem is that this is what the brain wants us to do. The Greeks got the idea for the Diolkos from the natural behavior own brains.

In 1967, research psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, who were studying Human Performance Theory at the University of Oregon, published a landmark finding in which they identified the three phases of learning a new skill.

The first is the cognitive phase, in which “it is usually necessary to attend to cues, events and responses that later go unnoticed.” Our brains are on overdrive, building new scaffolding through which to fire this new complex task. I was briefly a mediocre rock drummer in college (I couldn’t do fills or I’d end up on the wrong hand, so songs could only start… and then stop), and I noticed as I tried to learn a new groove—with each limb doing something completely different—that the beat stayed impossible day after day until, suddenly, it wasn’t, and suddenly I could sit down and do it without thinking or counting in my head. It was as if my brain was building lots of semi-complete rope bridges and then, one night, finishing them all at once while I slept. That was the threshold between the first cognitive phase into the second ‘associative’ phase.

The associative phase is for gradually eliminating mistakes, such as “grossly inappropriate subroutines, wrong sequences of acts, and responses to the wrong cues.” Learning morse code and keeping an aircraft out of the trees each take about ten solid hours in this phase before you’re off to the races. This is the point where my band-mates could say something to me on stage and I wouldn’t accidentally speed up the tempo when I tried to respond (this was never successfully achieved).

The final autonomous phase is the one in which the skill becomes so reflexive that a human can then re-deploy brain cognition to a new task at the same time. Drummers who can make both of their feet and their left hand hold a 6/8 rocking-motion pattern while tinging out a 4/4 or some sort of satanic 9/8 shit on the bell of the ride are perfect examples of the autonomous phase. Apache Helicopter pilots fly with a monocle over their right eye projecting into it dashboard readouts and radar information while the left eye looked out the windshield. Pilots complain of instant splitting headaches as their eyes and brains adjust to segregated tasks. But after a year of training—a year—the headaches go away. They can also by this point bend spoons with their minds.

Here’s the rub: our brains constantly want to usher us into the autonomous phase. It wants news skills to become automatic as quickly as possible so we can look up from clubbing wheat stalks long enough to see a tiger slinking toward our tribe. Evolutionarily, that’s a good thing for survival, and in the case of Apache pilots and Clyde Stubblefield, hot damn, but for the rest of us it means we tend to level off and stop improving at a certain point in the process of learning something new.

Fitts and Posner called this “The OK Plateau.”

As we acquire skills our brains are champing at the bit to be like, great, that’s a roger. This level of ability will do just fine. Because, of course, tigers. The human brain is basically the worst high school football coach of all time. Look, kids, just catch the thing when what’s-his-name decides to throw it at you and run away from whoever wants the ball. Does… does that guy in the parking lot look like a process server? Okay, we’re done here you guys, watch some games on Youtube this week and I’ll see you on Saturday.

Chess, piano, driving, cooking, not being an asshole, our brains move us on to the next skill as soon as our current level won’t get us killed. And it sets up our egos to be pissed off at the suggestion that there may be more to learn. Because tigers.

But then how are there virtuosos like Bernini and Maria Callas and Bill Burr?

The only way to short circuit the inevitable mediocrity our brains lock us into is to decide to deliberately fail, and to then hungrily study yourself failing. Know that it will happen, that it must if you’re ever going to get any better at something, and be hungry for feedback. I always marvel at major league pitchers, who are under massive pressure as it is, and then the whole game has to stop while the pitching coach comes out and tells him his tempo is off, or that thing he does with his hips is showing up, or he’s rushing through his early checkpoints, and the pitcher usually just takes the note, totally hungry for it. But in his position with 60,000 people staring at me waiting for me to get my shit together, I would just be like, “dude, I KNOWWW!”

But that’s the trick. The best figure skaters spend most of their practices on their ass. Chess grand masters devour their previous false moves, retroactively scrutinizing their precise moments of psycho-intellectual weakness despite not being able to go back in time and fix it. When I leave my dishes in the sink all day only to discover it’s been bothering my wife the whole time, I come unglued at not having a time machine to rectify the situation. (Okay, that was a younger me. Marriage and fatherhood have, in a very good way, broken my ego’s spirit. Now I just very lovingly tell her “that sounds like a YOU problem,” and go back to writing this sentence. Ahem. [*Cracks knuckles*])

When we start to pick up a new skill, our brains immediately start digging a diolkos, preparing for the moment where it can lock us into mediocrity, from the Ionian of noob to the Aegean of meh. But we can’t get better with the wheels locked in the tracks. Because as Vsevelod Meyerhold probably never said, “you can’t get better and look good at the same time.”

We have to fail.

We have to fail hard.

And we have to get horny for failure.

Expertise and success are then merely by-products of our new, weird masochistic fetish. So the next time you meet the world’s foremost expert in something, you can win their heart by saying, “I’m so disappointed in you.” Nine times out of then they’ll respond, “ugh, me too. Let me buy you a drink.”

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