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Plateaus - Commentary from an odd source
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May 1, 2012
Sometimes you find insight in odd places. So I'm currently reading Infinite Jest, this gigantic...well novel isn't really the right word, but anyway this big ass David Foster Wallace book where part of the storyline is about a youth tennis academy. DFW was a nationally ranked youth player at one point, so the storyline rings true...

Anyway, the teenaged characters are talking at one point about's the passage:

'Chu says "..that because you proceed to mastery through a series of plateaus, so there's like radical imporvement up to a certain plateau, with the only way to get off one of the plateaus and climb up to the next one up ahead is with a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there"....

'What John's saying is the types who don't hang in there and slog on the patient road toward mastery are basically three types.

You've got your Despairing type, who's fine as long as he's in the quick improvement stage before a plateau, but then he hits a plateau and sees himself stall, not getting better as fast or even seeming to get a little worse, and this type gives in to frustration and despair, because he hasn't got the humbleness and patience to hang in there and slog, and he can't stand the time he has to put in on the plateaus, and what happens? He bails.

'Then you've got your Obssesive type, so eager to plateau-hop he doesn't even know the word patient, much less humble or slog, when he gets stalled at a plateau he tries to like will and force himself off it, by sheer force of work and drill and will and parctice, drilling and obsessively honing and working more and more, as in frantically, and he overdoes it and gets hurt, and pretty soon he's all chronically messed up with injuries, and he hobbles around on the court still obsessively overworking, until finally he's hardly even able to walk or swing, and his ranking plummets until finally one P.M. there's a little knock on his door to talk about his progress here at the tennis academy. See ya'

Then what John considers the worst type, because it can cunningly masquerade as patience and humble frustration. You've got the Complacent type, who improves radically until he hits a plateau, and is content with the radical improvement he's made to get to the plateau, and doesn't mind staying at the plateau because it's comfortable and familiar and he doesn't worry about getting off it, and pretty soon you find he's designed a whole game around compensating for the weakness and chinks in the armor the given plateau represents in his game, still - his whole game is based on this plateau now. And little by little, guys he used to beat start beating him, locating the chinks of the plateau, and his rank starts to slide, but he'll say he doesn't care, he says he's in it for the love of the game, and he always smiles but there gets to be something sort of tight and hangdog about his smile, and he always smiles and is real nice to everybody and real good to have around but keeps staying where he is while other guys hop plateaus, and he gets beat more and more, but he's content."
Will S
From Joshua Tree
Joined Nov 15, 2006
1,013 points
May 1, 2012
So what type are you left with that is actually OK to be in this person's opinion? Stich
From Colorado Springs, Colorado
Joined Jan 1, 2001
1,230 points
May 1, 2012

It is not often that I talk with someone who actually read Infinite Jest. What is it, 2000 pages? I hope that you stick with it; the book is amazing and gets better towards the end. Who comes up with "The Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment" and slinging trash into the wasteland that is NE US and SE Canada with huge catapults? DFW was a genius and made me laugh my ass off! Make sure you read the endnotes. Some of those are brilliant works that could stand alone. The Broom of the System is also pretty good, but not as massive an undertaking as Infinite Jest. "Here and There" was in the O'henry short story collection, and is also an amazing piece of literature.

If you can't tell, I really like DFW! Enjoy!
NC Rock Climber
From The Oven, AKA Phoenix
Joined Dec 6, 2009
15 points
May 2, 2012
Thanks for sharing that Will. I certainly see some of those attitudes in the climbing world, and myself at times...and there is where I might modify the theory slightly.

I think for me certainly, and probably most of us, we take on all of those personalities at certain times in our careers. I can point to clear instances where I've "despaired" about my work/life situation and resigned-myself-to/rationalized remaining on a plateau. At other times I've obsessed, overworked and ended up injured. The last one is harder to admit, because it's very similar to the "proper" approach to a long athletic career: Humility, honesty, diligence, passion, patience, ambition are the desirable traits that come to mind now for having sustained improvement over a lifetime, but it's easy to feign those, while really just seeking out ways to hide your weaknesses and maintain your status among your peers. It's easy to exchange diligence for laziness all while justifying it as "patience".

Interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing.
Mike Anderson
From Colorado Springs, CO
Joined Nov 15, 2004
2,670 points
May 4, 2012
In “9 out of 10 climbers…” Dave McLeod does a good job of identifying some of the personalities and rationalizations of climbers struggling with performance plateaus. His characterizations share attitudes with the stereotypes brought out in DF Wallace’s Infinite Jest, only specific to climbing.

A point that McLeod brings out is that climbing requires multiple skills and that opens the door for a training climber to struggle with diminishing returns and performance plateaus in one or a few areas out of an array of skills. He identifies challenge in training as the ability to concentrate on skills that are less refined and devote time to improving them instead of compensating by sticking to climbs and routines that a climber already has the skills to succeed at. What you’re good at becomes self-limiting. Sounds a lot like the Complacent type discussed by Wallace.
Frank F
From Bend, OR
Joined May 18, 2010
0 points
May 4, 2012
Interesting stuff. Thanks. 1Eric Rhicard
Joined Feb 15, 2006
7,510 points
May 4, 2012
NC Rock Climber wrote:
I really like DFW! Enjoy!

If you haven't already, check out "The Girl with Curious Hair". What range of authentic voice!
DFW will be missed...
matt davies
Joined Mar 9, 2007
0 points
May 13, 2012
I guess I'm the classic "Complacent" type: been climbing for ~20 years, mostly on gear, hate falling, pretty much designing the game around my own weaknesses. Spot on Mr. Wallace. Rob Dillon
Joined Mar 22, 2002
640 points
May 13, 2012
I don't know what this says about my climbing, but I don't feel that I have ever really hit a plateau. I rotate bouldering, sport climbing and trad climbing depending on the seasons. Every time I rotate to the next discipline I see improvement. I feel that my progress in climbing has been a slow, steady incremental process.

Perhaps this is because climbing is a complex game. I feel like a guy spinning plates on sticks (see image below).
Rock Climbing Photo: spinning plates on sticks
spinning plates on sticks

I feel like this guy because while bouldering I"ll be spinning the plate of power training, then in sport climbing I'll start spinning the plate of endurance training. All the while hoping the "power plate" doesn't stop spinning. Then when trad season hits, I am trying to keep my lead head plate spinning etc.

I know it is a weird analogy, but through this process I feel that I am consistently able to improve something about my climbing game.
Darren in Vegas
From Las Vegas, NV
Joined Feb 13, 2006
1,895 points

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