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The 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 realize 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.”

James Clear

The Expectancy Curve

In James Clear’s fantastic book Atomic Habits, he explains the idea of the expectancy curve. I think it’s a great tool to overcome imposter syndrome or any other form of the attack. The expectancy curve helps us keep going by giving us a frame to understand our insufficiencies.

Whenever we learn something new, we expect our progress to follow a straight line but in reality our progress is more parabolic. This results in a period of time when we are performing at a lower level than we’re expecting. This time period is called The Valley of Disappointment and it’s duration depends on the skill and how much deliberate practice we choose to put in.

When we feel like we’re underperforming, it’s easy to feel like we aren’t “meant” to do that new thing but all we need to do is stick with our newfound skill until we reach the critical point. The critical point is where the level of our skill matches our expectations. When we reach the critical point we stop suffering from imposter syndrome, feel more confident in our abilities, and (most importantly) keep developing our skills.

Most people stop cultivating their skills when they’re in the valley of disappointment but the ones who make it to the critical point can start to reap the benefits of their faith, consistency, and hard work.

I’ve seen this play out in a number of skills but I found this especially true in music production, hurdling, and cooking.

It can take weeks, months, or even years to get to the critical point. When I first took up music production, I was told that I would have to practice producing for 5 years before I would be able to compose, mix, and master a song from start to finish.

This was me kind of understanding The Expectancy Curve and The Valley of Disappointment years before I could articulate it. The idea of The Valley of Disappointment and taking 5 years before I could complete a song gave me a longer time frame for proficiency. This longer time frame is what made it easier for me to cut myself some slack. That freedom to make mistakes helped me grow. I always thought that made me a little insane but [Kobe Bryant] talks about having the freedom to make mistakes and how that leads to accelerated growth too.

This isn’t to say that The Valley of Disappointment isn’t a tough place to be. It’s easy to think all the work we’re putting in is futile and insane but it isn’t. The work we put in while we’re in the valley is exactly what gives us the ability to move out of it and enjoy the fruits of our labor later on. Deliberate practice is never wasted effort. Our efforts compound over time and this is especially true with skill development.

It’s difficult to move past The Valley of Disappointment but I do think as we learn more we find peace in our insufficiencies. The more I learned about music production, the more I realized that the experienced producers who said music production had a 5 year valley of disappointment were right. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. (Which totally applies to everything btw)

“Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” 

Chinese proverb

The whole idea is to stick with things for a while. Ask people in the field how long it took them to feel comfortable and confident in their position. I remember an ER doc saying it took him 10 years before he felt like he reach his critical point. Proficiency take time.

I find that knowing The Valley of Disappointment exists helps me get through it. The upset is temporary and the I know I’m right around the corner from being a badass.

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