A lonely, rocky road through the Plateau of Practice

Almost every endeavor I've tried in life follows one of two paths. Either through an enthusiasm of my own, or by way of an invitation from someone, I try something new. I read up on it beforehand, I exert my considerable focus and energy, I pay attention and learn from my initial, stumbling mistakes. I get, if not good, then minimally competent.

Then it happens. I come to the wide spot in the road, that place where the learning curve starts to flatten out. It is that lonely place, that bleak and windswept terrain, that bone-strewn wasteland that separates the pretenders and the dilettantes from the devotees and the professionals. It is...

the Plateau of Practice

On every skill journey, I have come to this place and faced the rocky path that leads forward into an unknown fate.

Sometimes, as with drawing, doing calculus, playing the violin, and composing poetry, I travel down the road long enough to know that it's not worth it. The road is hard, lonely and painful, and it's not worth it. Whatever glories might await me at the end of a thousand hours of practicing, it's not worth it. Minimal competence is good enough. I know that this is not the right path for me and I turn back.

Other times - working with wood and stone and metals. singing, and writing - I don't notice the rocks and biting flies on that long road nearly so much as I notice how much ground I've put behind me after every hour of walking it. This road, with its twists and turns, hides the final destination from me. Is it fortune? Is is just a huge circle that will take me back to the beginning? Is it worth it? I keep going, reveling in the movement forward and trusting that the prize, whatever it is, will be there.

It's an uphill road, sometimes steeply, sometimes slopingly, but I marvel at how strong my legs have become along the way. The rocks are rough, the gravel road and the sharp-edged handholds a thousand abrasive rasps, but I delight in the thickened calluses on my hands and feet. The blazing, blinding sun beats down; my tanned, toughened skin protects me. The icy, biting night wind tears at me; I dig my shelter in the sand and am warmed by thoughts of my progress.

Sometimes, when I come to a rise, the road straightens, giving me a long, long, long view ahead. Not of the prize, not of the city on the hill, not of the maiden fair and lovely... but of more road. Road and more road, stretching on forever.

The bones are thick in these places. Despair wells up from the sand like a night fog, wrapping the traveler in the lying stink of wasted time and jealousy and self-recrimination.

I'll admit, I have wept when faced with this long view. I have fallen to my knees and cursed myself for the foolishness of setting out on this journey. My strong legs, my callused hands, my sharpened senses, my fieldcraft and travelers tool kit... worthless. The road ahead is too hard, I am too tired, too injured, too weak, and the prize is not worth it.

On some skill journeys, this is where I lay down and died.

However, there are other journeys across this plateau where, after a short time or a long time, I rouse myself and go forward again. Sometimes, I'm helped to my feet by a passing friend, someone else who is on the same journey I am. Other times, there are mentors and guides who can advise me on how to tackle the next leg of the journey. These roads through the Plateau of Practice are lonely, but they don't have to be completely so.

I don't need to reach the goal today.

I don't even need to put miles and miles behind me today.

I just need to keep moving forward.

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