Critical Threshold and the Plateau of Latent Potential
This book is brilliant and it conceptualized a lot of important things – many I subconsciously have always been aware of but could not articulate in a concrete or convincing way.
Now that I’m done reading it, I want to document some learnings that I take away before I move on to the next brilliant book and forget all about this.
I thought it would do good if I share it with you as well because I think these concepts could help you work better towards the kind of life you want to live.
Excerpt from Atomic Habits:
Imagine that you have an ice cube sitting on the table in front of you. The room is cold and you can see your breath. It is currently twenty-five degrees. Ever so slowly, the room begins to heat up.
The ice cube is still sitting on the table in front of you.
Still, nothing has happened.
Then, thirty-two degrees. The ice begins to melt. A one-degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a huge change.
Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.
Valley of Disappointment
We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realist the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a ‘valley of disappointment‘ where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.
Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. The most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient.
Plateau of Latent Potential
When you seem to make no improvements despite all the hard work you’re putting in, it’s often because you have not crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. It’s like the ice cube not melting until it reaches thirty-two degrees. When you finally break through the Plateau of Latent Potential, people will call it an overnight success. The outside world only see the most dramatic event rather than all that preceded it. But you know that it’s the work you did long ago – when it seemed that you weren’t making any progress – that makes the jump possible today.
The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room:
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it – but all that had gone before.
My personal favourite example
Right when I was reading this book, my favourite YouTuber Ashely @bestdressed put up a video with some career advice. There, she was generous enough to include her YouTube revenue stat which was very eye-opening and just confirmed the critical threshold concept.
Ashley @Bestdressed’s YouTube Revenue
It took her 2.5 years to start earning any revenue from YouTube. But she continued working really hard. She started her channel when she was in high school and was working 5 part time jobs.
So basically, her critical threshold was in October 2018, when she finally started earning revenue.
It definitely surprised me because her number of subscribers + her quality of content and videos has been brilliant ever since I started watching her channel sometime in 2017. And to put in that kind of effort when you’re earning 0 for years? I don’t think a lot of people can do that. But then again, that’s also why not a lot of people can move to NYC right after college, be a part of the New York Fashion Week and have 3.12 million subscribers.
Drawing from my own life
I have been a storyteller ever since I can remember. But the first time I sat and intentionally shared my work online was on my poetry blog on tumblr in 2015.
During that first year, getting 10 notes – likes, comments, shares – on any post was rare! In 2016 it improved slightly. But in 2017, 100+ notes on each poem became a norm. There were poems that got 500, 700, 1000, and even 3000 notes.
On a platform like tumblr where there are some people who are writing poetry that’s authentic to them and not passing on one-line quotes as poetry, it’s very easy to get discouraged because of lack of engagement from the audience.
But you know, I think, when it comes to art, your primary purpose of creating should be creating and whatever it does for you. What it does for others should be your secondary goal.
I didn’t stick to creating and sharing on tumblr because I was aware of the critical threshold concept. I did it because creating is so central to me. But in other areas of my life – studying, exercising, working – things that don’t come so naturally and joyfully to me, knowing this and reminding myself of it, is going to be very helpful.
The valley of disappointment is very deep. There’s no way I am going to deny that. I have been trying to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle for like years! Whether that’s going to the gym, trying hot Yoga, attempting intermittent fasting or the GM diet, quitting sugar, etc, etc. And in retrospection, each of these things did show me some results. Had I stuck to any one (except the GM diet because it’s not healthy), I would have achieved my goal.
But the frustration and disappointment is so maddening that it’s easier to rationalize the ineffectiveness of whatever we are doing and simply quit. Not anymore!