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Stories from the Plateau

Learning doesn’t guarantee success. You can pour hours into attempting to learn something new and still never reach a pinnacle of success of a kind that our world’s media suggests is your right if you work hard. The truth is, putting in the hard graft is no guarantee that you’ll arrive at a positive result. And yet, there is one certainty about learning, if you don’t bother trying to learn anything, you won’t have any possibility of succeeding at all.

I’m right in the thick of learning lines for a musical theatre show with my wonderful community musical theatre group. We do it because it’s fun to hang out together and sing (often) great songs, and attempt a bit of acting and dancing. And did I mention we just like to mess about in each other’s company? If I have anything like an extended family, it’s these guys that are it. It’s fun (usually) and it’s hard work to achieve anything remotely close to a solid performance that people will actually enjoy experiencing when they rock up to watch the show. It’s not about the audience, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling that the audience have gone home with a spring in their step and smile on their faces – and that we’ve been the cause.

I know that on one level it doesn’t matter if I put hard work in or not. Something unexpected could happen on the night that means I won’t recall the lines, or I’ll stumble on a word and the line will come up all crumpled up. Or someone will leave their mobile phone on and the resulting ringtone will throw me off kilter. And I also know that if I don’t do the work of trying to learn the lines, I definitely won’t know them, and the lack of confidence that results means I end up anxious, stressed out and worried that I’ll let myself and everyone around me down.

What I know is doing the work to learn the lines means I won’t worry so much, and I’ll have more mental capacity to try new stuff out, to have fun and to really be there with my friends in the cast and crew in this moment and this moment and this moment.

I also know that I will go through inevitable peaks and troughs as I try to learn the lines, music and choreography. There will be highs when it goes well or in the early days when there is lots of time. There will be days of crushing bleakness when it’s going badly and I can’t remember a single thing I’ve been trying to get to stick. And there will be days on the plateau where it’s sort of ticking along – made some progress and not really seeing any evidence of further momentum or development. The days where I’ve been working on specific things and they just won’t stick. It’s tempting to find these times frustrating and give up. And yet, if I keep doing the work, showing up and learning especially when it seems nothing is happening, eventually I’ll hit a breakthrough. The plateau is where I learn most about me. About my impatience, where I fight my perfectionist demons and where I have to trust that it’s worth carrying on taking steps when there’s no obvious sign of growth, or change.

So when you’re learning remember that the plateau is always there. You will always reach it. And it isn’t an easy place to be. Surround yourself with people who love you, do fun things and keep going. The plateau is like a tree in winter. Reserves are building, new growth is about to breakthrough, spring is around the corner. Don’t give up.

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