3 Jan 2013


I just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer during the holidays.

No, it is not a book about physics. Instead, that was a story about a journalist who decided to take part in a memory contest after he interviewed some ‘mental athletes’ at one such event. During the preparation, he learned various methods to memorize words, numbers and cards. The book also reviewed the history of mnemonics and the value (or lack of value) of those techniques in the digital age.

At one point, Foer encountered something we all must have experienced before – his performance ceased to improve despite further practice. His advisor suggested him to look up literature on typing speed. When one learns typing, there is first a sharp learning curve. Most people, however, reach a plateau soon and the typing speed becomes constant. The same phenomenon occurs in almost all acquired skills such as playing musical instruments and sports.

That said, it is clear that the plateau (Foer called it OK plateau) is not an insurmountable barrier. In sports events, for example, records are broken year after year. The main reason for staying in the plateau is because our conscious performance has become automatic. After some training, we can type words without consciously thinking about it. However, it is possible to type even faster by getting feedbacks and targeting potential weaknesses, such as a few keys that are particularly slow. After that, this may turn automatic again and become our new plateau. The trick, therefore, is to have the heart and skills to improve.

Does it mean that we must fight against plateaus? Certainly not. We need to do most things automatically so that our mind is free to focus on more important areas that merit improvement. As the New Year starts, however, it is time to examine if we have allowed too many important parts of our lives stuck at the OK plateau.

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