Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Nick Thacker of LiveHacked.com.
They’re easy—the first period of developmental progress in just about anything comes with the reward of great results.
When I first started playing trombone, I enjoyed the same sort of success—I was getting better and better, and putting in very little effort to do so. Throughout my grade school years, and even into college, my improvement slowed a little, but I was still achieving great gains in my playing ability.
But I wasn’t even close to “hands-down amazing.”
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says it takes 10,000 hours to get to the level of “hands-down amazing” (my words, not his) that gets people noticed. If you do the math, you’ll realize I was somewhere near my 5,000th hour of playing trombone—thousands of hours short of reaching “hands-down amazing.”
In our professional lives, there’s a point between when we’re considered “good at what we do” and “hands-down amazing.” Seth Godin calls this The Dip:
“Every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point-really hard, and not much fun at all.” (source).
So that means that the 5,000th hour is like the bottom of The Dip—the place where it seems as though all hope is lost—the point where you reach a plateau. No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to “break through” The Dip and get to the next level.
The red pill or the blue pill—recognizing you’re in The Dip.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re truly in The Dip or just in a dip. For me, growth in my musical abilities was like a staircase, like it is for many of us:
- You get better.
- You stop getting better, so you change something about the way you’re doing things.
- You get better again.
This process continues, until—after you’ve invested countless hours (actually, somewhere around 5,000!) and even dollars—into this particular aspect of your life or work, you just stop getting better altogether.
Period, zip, nada. You’re stuck, and nothing you’ve done before can break you out of The Dip. Godin points out that in most instances, if the prize at the end is worth having, then you’re best off by continuing down the same road—effectively “pushing through” The Dip, no matter how unrelentingly terrible it gets at the 5,000th hour.
So at this point, I had two options: push through and keep studying music, or give up and change course. In life and work, at the point of reaching The Dip you can choose to abandon the work altogether, or you change your methods and keep pushing forward.
But do you even want to continue?
Sometimes we second-guess what it is we’re trying to do—to find out if it’s truly “worth it.” This is what The Dip tries to help you figure out. Go read it—I won’t get into it here.
Either way—whether you decide to “push through” or not—you need to get clarity. Clarity comes when we specifically, purposefully, and physically outline our goals, and once we have clarity in this particular Dip, we can make a decision about how best to proceed.
To achieve clarity, write down (now!) the answers to these questions:
- What is the “light” at the end of your tunnel? To perform in Carnegie Hall? To be the biggest blogger on the block?
- Why do you want to reach the light (What does it mean for you to achieve it)? Money? Happiness? Fulfillment or recognition?
- If you weren’t pushing toward [insert your light at the end of your tunnel], what would you be doing?
Once you’ve answered these questions as honestly as you’re able, you should be at a point where you’re more clear about how best to proceed. When I took this “test,” I found these answers:
- The “light” at the end of my tunnel was working on my own terms, with the ability to create and build things.
- I wanted to reach the light because that meant I’d achieved a dream, and I had the means to provide for a family while doing something I loved.
- If I wasn’t pushing toward that light, I’d be pushing toward something for someone else—an unfulfilling (at best) lifestyle for me.
I achieved clarity at that moment and decided that it didn’t matter if I didn’t become a great trombone player, band director, or composer. These were things I liked to do, but I didn’t feel the need to push toward them all day, every day.
At that point, I changed the game.
From then on, I started taking business courses—specifically marketing and entrepreneurship courses, and joined a business organization that let me throw ideas around with other like-minded individuals.
The “rules” of college were to go to school for four years, take classes that let you work toward a certain degree, and then graduate with the best grades possible.
I changed the rules, and subsequently changed course in my life.
If you want to push through The Dip and make it to the other side, or if you want to change course altogether, you need to change the rules. Don’t adhere to the status quo, or go about the normal course of action. To change the rules, and change the game, you can try a few things that have helped me:
- Be a fringe player. If everyone’s going one direction, go the other.
- Study something new. If you’re in a line of work that deals with people, take a few courses on animal science or computer programming.
- Try a “difficult” hobby. I like hobbies, but the ones that really change my life are the ones that take much more focus and in-depth study. Try building a nuclear reactor, or a car from a kit.
- Write about it. Writing, as a hobby, is a great release from the pressures of the world. Writing can be a “game changer” though we you do it persistently and actively enough to help other people who are experiencing a similar Dip.
- Quit. Recognize what it was about your particular area of study or work that you loved, and take it with you into another field. For me, playing trombone wasn’t the draw—it was creating something (music) from nothing. Now, I write and create things from nothing all the time, but music is rarely involved.
Fighting through your Dip will be tricky—it’s supposed to be. It’s the design of it; it keeps true experts scarce and the rest of the world in demand. If you truly desire the “light” at the end of your tunnel—at the other side of The Dip—stick through, make it work, change the game, and get there.
If you’re not sure, or know that you no longer want that light, change course by changing the game. Sometimes it really is best to give up.
It’s the most freeing, awesome experience I’ve had, to feel the risk of it while seeing the limitless possibilities out there for me.
Give it a shot—what’s Your Dip, and what’s your decision?
photo courtesy of Jacob Bøtter
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