How to Get Unstuck and Break Through Learning Plateaus

Part of becoming an artist, or a true pro, is cultivating an internal locus of evaluation – our own personal concept of what success, excellence, and beautiful art means. What it sounds like, looks like, feels like. That is, after all, the basis of our artistic DNA, and what gives us our unique voice.

But if we stick our heads in the sand too deep, we can run into a different problem.

Our learning stagnates. We get stuck on a plateau.

We’ve all been there. Where we are putting in the time, and practicing harder than ever, but for some reason, we can’t take that next step forward. Frustrated, we begin to suspect that we must be missing something…some piece of knowledge, some tweak of our technique that that would help us break through the wall…but we have no idea what it could be.

So how do we break through these plateaus, and get unstuck?


When you go to graduate school in counseling or clinical psych, you begin working with real clients/patients in your second year of training. But to ensure you are actually doing good work, and to help further the development of your clinical skills, a big part of the next 5-7 years of your training involves working under the supervision of a licensed psychologist who signs off on your diagnoses, case notes, and meets with you weekly to review video of your sessions with clients.

I’d been taking weekly violin lessons for 20 years, and was used to being critiqued, so figured supervision wouldn’t be a big deal. Oof, was I wrong.

It’s uncomfortable enough to watch video of yourself in action on your own. It becomes a real challenge to your ego to watch video with your supervisor, whose job it is to be supportive, but also make observations about all the things you missed and ask you all the tough questions you aren’t experienced enough to know to ask yourself.

I always learned something, and supervision always helped me be more helpful to my clients, but it was hard not to beat myself up, wondering “How could I have missed that?” or “Why didn’t I think about that?”

Bruised though my ego may have been, the problem of course, is that we can’t work on things that aren’t in our conscious awareness.

Imaginary problems

I remember being confused when an interesting and thoughtful student once confessed to spending too much time working on imaginary problems. She went on to explain that these were the little tiny problems that she could spend forever on, but would only result in microscopic improvements in her playing while the high-value targets that would make a far greater difference in the quality of her playing were neglected.

We don’t ignore them on purpose. Often, we simply cannot see what the biggest areas for improvement in our playing might be.

Executive coaches utilize the conscious competence learning model to describe this phenomenon.

The first stage is unconscious incompetence, where we are blind to the things we need to work on.

The second stage is conscious incompetence, where we have an awareness and understanding of what it is that we need to work on.

The third stage is conscious competence, where we have worked on developing the new skill, but it still takes a great deal of awareness and concentration to execute. The skill hasn’t yet been automatized.

The last stage is unconscious competence, where the new skill has become second nature and is performed easily without needing to think about it.

We’re pretty good at stages 3 and 4, and can even navigate our way through stage 2 in many cases, but we can speed things up by getting outside help with stage 1.

Watch this 3-minute video of surgeon Atul Gawande describing this model.


When former #1-ranked tennis player Roger Federer decided to go it alone without a coach, it was big news. Many wondered what he could possibly be thinking. It’s assumed that the world’s best athletes should have coaches, and we think nothing of it.

But how would you feel if you were being wheeled into surgery for a major procedure, and discovered that your surgeon had hired a surgery coach to observe the operation? Would this put you more at ease, or heighten your anxiety and make you question your surgeon’s expertise?

It can be scary to open ourselves up to outside observation, to expose ourselves to critique when we feel like we are already professionals. But if we have reached a plateau, and can’t figure out how to take the next step, it might be time to shelve our ego for a moment and ask someone on the outside to tell us what they see.

After all, many top business execs have coaches. Vocalists have coaches. Even Itzhak Perlman has a coach (his wife, Toby, who also studied at Juilliard).

Do I have a coach? Well, unofficially yes. But I will admit that even though I trust my coach implicitly, know she’s my biggest fan, and recognize how much I depend on her input, I still feel my ego freaking out a little when I ask for honest feedback. But I’m always better for it, and besides, she (aka my wife) is going to tell me anyway even if I don’t always want to hear it.

Next actions

Identify a coach you trust. A colleague, mentor, friend, or perhaps a spouse.

Screw up the courage to ask them for feedback on something that has you feeling stuck. Your playing. Your performing. Your teaching (somehow, this is often scarier than performance critiques). Heck, you could even get feedback on your parenting or negotiating skills or body language.

See what they notice. Were they the right person to fulfill this role? Did they see something that wasn’t in your conscious awareness, but might help you get unstuck?

The one-sentence summary

“In the absence of clearly defined priorities, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.” ~Unknown

Additional reading

Atul Gawande‘s terrific piece in The New Yorker about his experience with a surgery coach (includes more on Itzhak Perlman, and how much he relies on Toby’s ears): Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?

photo credit: Henry Stern via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


6 Responses

  1. I couldn’t have read this at a better time. However, I truly believe that there is a value to “going it alone,” especially after having gone straight through the undergrad-grad process, having everyone tell you their opinions about what you “should” be doing. I left grad school thinking I was in the driver’s seat, when in fact I had developed a dependency on others “fixing me,” and not really knowing how to deal with my own instrument when left to my own devices. It took me almost two years after leaving grad school (not being in a program of sorts) to really find out what it is that I NEED to get better — a.k.a. the “conscious incompetence” stage. Thank you, Dr. Kageyama, for this insightful and encouraging post as I continue to work through my cycle to the next “conscious competence” stage.

  2. I think it takes a little time to get the wheel firmly in one’s hands. When you get used to steering yourself, then you are ready to benefit from the right coach, one who won’t try to wrench the wheel out of your hands. A teacher I think tells you where you might want to go — a coach helps you get to where you want to go. But you have to have developed the ability to choose your own destinations first. Sometimes that’s a struggle, even against our teachers or ourselves. It took me a couple years away from piano lessons to realize that I could actually choose what music I wanted to play myself. The second I made that realization, I was at the college library photocopying the Schirmer album for Scott Joplin, but like I said it took me a couple years to realize that I could do that.

  3. Being a singer songwriter and currently in a band. Having a significant other who shares the same passion as you can help overcome block. Someone that close to you can help you overcome frustrations that you would not be able to overcome any other way. It’s not the be all end all but it sure worked for me. That inspired me to start this new dating site , This site links people with the same life’s passions and can give people the ultimate in satisfaction. No worries that your partner thinks your spending too much time with the one thing that keeps you going.

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