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The Plateau Effect: Why You’re Stuck and How to Change

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What do you do when you feel like you’ve hit a plateau in your career, your finances or your relationships? Try to just muscle through it? That’s usually the first approach we try, but it is probably also one of the least effective.

I recently interviewed Bob Sullivan, co-author of The Plateau Effect, about strategies for getting unstuck. In addition to his new book, Bob is an investigative reporter, and the writer of The Red Tape Chronicles for NBCNews.com. Following is an edited excerpt from our conversation. Scroll down the page to listen to the entire interview and download the podcast.

Gerri: Let’s set the stage here, Bob, by talking about what a plateau is. How do you define it?

Bob: People get to a place in life where they feel like they’re working harder and harder, and getting less return for it. The great news for your listeners is that all the advice they’ve gotten for most of their life — which is suck it up, just keep pushing through, just keep trying harder — that’s exactly the wrong thing to do when you’ve hit a plateau.

In fact, changing things is the only way to fix things. Working harder and getting less is the very definition of a plateau. And sadly, we’ve all been trained to lower our heads and keep going when that happens, when in fact change is what’s really required. That’s what’s exciting about the plateau effect.

On Delayed Gratification …

Gerri: In one part of the book, you talk about a method for distancing yourself from the things you want. This is particularly interesting because a lot of times when someone’s in a financial plateau they need to change things so that they can start using their money to pay down debt or achieve a financial goal, and it can be difficult to shake ourselves out of our routine. Talk about this method that you describe in the book.

Bob: One of the most important research discoveries in the field of learning in the past 50 years has been something known to learning educators as the “Marshmallow Test.” There’s a whole bunch of variations of it, but in the simplest version they put an eight-year old in a room with a marshmallow and they tell the poor kid if you can hold off eating that marshmallow for ten minutes, you’ll get two marshmallows.

What they find is that the kids who are able to hold off eating that marshmallow and get their reward at the end of the ten minutes, their ability to do that even at a very young age is an incredible predictor of success later in life — of academic success, of financial success, and even success in things like relationships.

This idea of being able to put off rewards until later, it seems to be somewhat genetic. It certainly can be learned as well, but the marshmallow test is this key predictor of how well people will do.

That brings us to the question that you asked, which is, “How do you not eat the marshmallow?”

On Mastering the Marshmallow Test …

Bob: The good news is you can teach yourself or you can teach your kids to do that and there’s lots of methods in the book. But one that they talk a lot about when folks do this kind of research is the difference between what’s called a “hot ideation” and “cold ideation.”

It’s easy to imagine what hot ideation is. Hot ideation is wow, I really like that ice cream cone. It’s going to taste so good. I can feel it in my mouth, it’s hot, I’m hungry and that ice cream cone tastes good. And that just lets your emotions take over. You can imagine how good that marshmallow’s going to feel when you put it in your mouth, and you can’t resist for the full ten minutes.

Cold ideation on the other hand, this is what you want go for when you’re in a situation (where you need to resist). This is how you can really change your thinking. Intellectualize a marshmallow, which sounds very brutal but it does work. They put people in a room and instead of having a marshmallow they put a picture of a marshmallow in the room.

And the picture itself was unable to of course tempt the kids unless the instructor told the students to imagine those sensory properties of the marshmallow. (Then) they could steer the kids into hot ideation which made the kids fail. It made the kids actually opt for, “Give me the marshmallow now.”

When there’s something that you really, really want like a new car, clothes that you’re going out for for the weekend, consider the part of your brain that’s operating it. Is it the hot part or the cold part? The hot part is thinking about how great that new pair of shoes is going to look. The cold part is,’what is this going to do to my bank account next week?’

And to whatever degree you can shift your brain thinking from hot ideation to cold ideation, that’s going to say how successful you’re going to be in terms of changing your behavior and literally changing the way that you think about the things that you want and you’ll be much better at trading today’s gains for tomorrow’s gains — which is really the key to success here.

Gerri: Bob, I’ve read about the marshmallow study in many places and none of them have gone into the detail that you did here. So I thought, “If your kid eats the marshmallow, you’re screwed.”

Bob: The marshmallow test sounds like predestination, but it’s not. There are some elements of it which seem like some kids are more naturally-inclined than others just to delay gratification. But you absolutely can teach it, you can learn it and you can use techniques to get better at it.

On Opportunity Cost …

Gerri: In another part of the book, you talk about something called opportunity cost and you say that failing to see the opportunity cost of standing still — of staying in that plateau where you are — keeps people unhappy, stuck, underemployed and struggling.

Bob: Opportunity cost is one of the prime principles of economics but it’s something that we rarely apply in our personal life, which is a terrible shame. In the business world, opportunity cost is pretty simple. I’m a venture capitalist, I have $5 million to invest, and if I invest in Company A, that means I’m not going to invest in Company B. So therefore, I’ve lost some opportunities.

In addition to spending $5 million on Company A, if Company B would have netted me $50 million, my opportunity cost is $50 million. That’s easy when it comes to companies, and hard when it comes to your personal life. Again, the thing that so many of us have been trained to do is just to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep working in a place where we’re working even though it’s not making us happy.

This applies to any kind of learning, whether you’re trying to learn the piano or learn a foreign language, what we are very bad at evaluating is what are we missing out on because we’re putting all this extra effort into something that isn’t yielding us results.

The relationship example is the best one of all. If you’re dating someone, you’re unhappy but not miserable enough to do something, the opportunity cost is if you break up with them you might meet someone who would’ve really made you happier. The problem is our psychology is that — and there’s plenty of versions of this experiment — where people will pick often a mildly uncomfortable experience over an unknown virtually every time.

If you put people and give them door number one, door number two, or door number three, and door number one is stay the same, door number two is a mildly uncomfortable experience, and door number three is just empty: It might be positive, it might be negative. People almost never pick door number three, which is a shame because of course your odds are just as good that change is going to bring about something good and something bad, that’s a 50-50 shot.

Your odds are probably 100% that what you’re doing right now that makes you unhappy is going to keep making you unhappy.

And again, opting to do the risky, scary thing is hard for a lot of people, unless you can put it into these intellectual terms of ‘it’s really scary to do nothing,’ also. We see that most directly in saving for retirement, you might be saving 2% into your 401(k) and you’re scared to save more for the future.

But if you really actually think it through and you really put it in a spreadsheet, and you discover that you’re only going to have $42,000 at age 65 in your 401(k), that’s going to  motivate you to make a change.

And this affects so many different places of our life, this idea when you’re weighing your options for the future, of adding in ‘what does it really cost me to not change?’

Listen to the entire interview, including insights into how anchoring and rapid toggling (aka “multitasking,”) can keep you stuck in a plateau. Listen to the interview online here, download it here, or get the podcast in iTunes.

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