My favorite book is The Magus by John Fowles. It was given to me by my first mentor, the late Dr. John Miller. The book is so good and I love it so much that I have never finished it. Every time I pick it up, I come across a sentence so breathtakingly perfect that I have to close the book and leave it for a while. The prose is just too much for me. I have been absorbing it in small doses for over 12 years and I never want to be not reading it for the first time. But this odd problem I have with the book is the very problem that the mentor character points out to his pupil when he discusses his problem with modernism sacrificing ethics for aesthetics: Utram bibis? Aquam an undam? "Which do you drink? The water or the wave?"
Nothing in nature is linear except time. Everything moves from one side of the middle to the other. When this is mapped over time, you’ll see that everything has a wave pattern to it. Summer and winter. We sleep and we wake. We work and we rest. We hunger and we feed. Action-reaction. Train-recover. In season-off season. These are the waves that we live in. And fighting it can be fatal.
Utram bibis? Aquam an undam? The water will quench your thirst, but the wave will drag you under. The mentor is ostensibly talking about art. But he isn’t. He is talking about the dangers of contrivance in the the face of reality. For him it’s aesthetics over ethics. For us it’s schedules, programs, diets, and routines. We look at these linear progressions and think that if we follow them we will make our goals. But we ignore the wave: progress-plateau. Most training programs and diets are six weeks long because any structured plan will work for six weeks and no structured plan will work longer than that. But plateaus are not failure. Progress is building the muscle, cutting the fat, getting more done, lifting heavier weights, throwing further, running faster and going harder. Progress is that rush when we think we are quenching our thirst. Plateaus are what keep us from getting dragged under.
According to George Leonard, mastery is about embracing the plateau. To continue practicing and training for the love of it and because it’s part of who we are. The plateau is when we are truly learning. Learning to integrate the technique with the strength. The tension with the relaxation. The new skills with the old. Because the plateau is when we are learning patience. The patience to let our unconscious catch up to our conscious. And the patience to continue on while we wait for the next wave of progress.
So how do we do it? How do we get to our goals when there is no plan that will take us there? How can we learn to embrace the plateau? How do we drink without drowning?
“Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
Plans may contrivances, but principles are reality. And doing something according to a plan will teach you a lot about the principles that underpin that plan. Look at every strength training program ever written and what do they all have in common? Pick up heavy things consistently but not too frequently. Every diet program? Eat less calories than you use, but don’t starve yourself to death. These are the principles that work and upon which every plan is based. These are the ways to keep moving forward toward your goals while you figure out what your next wave is going to look like. Master the habit of picking up heavy things. Master the habit of eating enough food. Drink slowly and embrace the plateau. The wave will come; and if you can recognize it for what it is, you might not drown.