There are a lot of different reasons people plateau in their quest for mastery or excellence. Conditions might not be right; support structures might not be in place; the individual might not be adequately prepared; the definition of mastery may be in fact unreachable. The one that concerns me is the person who isn’t really sure if an imagined level of mastery is possible. For example, no one has ever levitated, but if anyone ever did, you can bet that a lot of people would figure out how to do it themselves pretty quickly. Experimentation and effort in this field are cramped by the (in this case, correct) belief that levitation is impossible. I’ll bet the first double axel was a lot harder to achieve than the subsequent ones, the ones where skaters had seen it done and thought, “I can do that if I work hard enough.”
One of the reasons the arts flourish where there are a lot of artists is because they spur each other on. Each makes tiny advances that alert the others to the fact that such advances are possible. If you’re a poet and you read a sonnet by Keats, you can deny or hate its genius because of how ordinary it makes you feel (that’s what the play, Amadeus, is about); you can quit writing poetry; you can quit writing sonnets; or you can be inspired. A central aspect of this sort of inspiration is simply to realize that in fourteen lines, it is indeed possible to be transparent, clever, insightful, pictorial, and wise.
Powerful experiences in my own training included the chance to observe master clinicians listen to new material and respond to it on the fly. From these experiences, my fellow students and I got great supervision—ideas about what to do with the case we were presenting—but more importantly, we got the sense that it was possible to be a master clinician, to understand what was happening in a therapy session while it was unfolding, and to respond according to the case formulation and the treatment goals while using the therapeutic interaction as an exemplar of the problematic pattern of relating to others.
The learning curve looks the same wherever you are on it. Whether you are a complete newbie or an expert, you can look down the curve with satisfaction or with arrogance. You can look horizontally and see a way station, a rest area, or a summit. You can look up the curve with despair, with anger, or with inspiration. Often, higher parts of the learning curve are shrouded in mist, making it easy for us to think we are at the summit. If we create a culture, as we have done in much of psychology, of niceness, we try not make others feel bad about where they are on the curve, and where they are is the same for everyone: higher than they might be and lower than they might be. If we tell students that what they did was wonderful, they are also likely to conclude that there is nothing more to learn. One of the main ways we have of blocking the spirit of mastery is to claim there is no such thing, that the best you can do is to follow a treatment manual or a computerized interpretation system. Students who refuse to challenge each other don’t help, and supervisors who refuse to challenge students are insuperable.
The underlying problem is our tendency to reward students for getting the right answer instead of for engaging in the process that typically produces a right answer. In fact, the right answer should be the reward, not the signal for praise. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is easier in baseball than in psychotherapy, because in baseball everyone can tell whether the fielder caught the ball, so catching the ball becomes the reward, not the coach’s praise. But even in baseball, coaches have to praise hitters for making good contact even if the ball goes directly to a fielder. Coaches have to potentiate solidly hit fair balls as reinforcers regardless of where they go. In psychology, there is not widespread agreement about how to tell if an action by the therapist actually worked.
If you’ve been praised your whole life for getting the right answer, you might have a tendency to interest yourself only in activities that can be mastered quickly. Psychotherapy is not one of these. If you’ve been rewarded for seeking the right answer, you might be better suited for clinical work. In terms of the learning curve, the desired state of mind is to seek and enjoy the next foothold and the next handhold. On the flatter portions of the curve, the idea is to enjoy the stroll. If you are a psychologist and take pleasure in knowing things, you will lead a life of disappointment, frustration, and resentment, because in psychology, there is no summit; there are always a thousand times more things to know than you will ever know. But if you take pleasure in finding things out, you will lead a life of adventure, inspiration, and vitality, because there is always more to find out.