Episode 165: Mastery and the Plateau

Does it ever feel like the more you learn-the further you are from arriving?
This week I read, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment by George Leonard. In this podcast, I read five passages and explain how I see them show up in the journey with horses. This totally explains why my recent goal setting has been a struggle. Listen to learn what mastery is…and isn’t…as well as how, “To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.”


Stacy Westfall: [00:00:23] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. Today I’m going to talk about mastery and the plateau. But before I introduce you to the book and the concepts, I have a question to those of you who have been listening to the last few episodes. So if you haven’t been listening, I’ll give you a little primer or a little reminder for those who have listened. Basically, I’ve talked a lot about goal setting recently, and if you’ve been listening for the last few years, you’ll know that I’d do this every year around this time. And if you’ve been listening for that long, here’s the question. Are you surprised that I didn’t just have a goal on January 1st? I know that there’s a part of my brain, like the perfectionist part that was kind of disappointed that I didn’t have something really pretty and complete and easy to articulate on January 1st, especially because I do this all the time. But I want to be very open with you and make sure that you’re aware that just because I do this process every year it’s not like I’ve perfected it. It doesn’t always just come. Like the goals and the direction and all of that is something that I work on. And even during a year, I continue to review them so that I can try to figure out, am I on track? Like, am I on my track? Is this–is this making sense to me? Because at the end of the day, what I’m not looking for is a rinse and repeat kind of a life.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:03] So it’s interesting that in the process of reinventing learning more, it means I’m always going to be a different person the next year. But that also means I’m going to be a different person the next month. And so every once in a while, what I find is I hit some bigger bumps, like this year when I’m really struggling with the goal-setting idea more this year than I have in let’s say the last, you know, two or three or four years. I do notice that there is a trend to that happening. You know, after maybe like four or five years, I’m going to hit a bigger bump. But I think it’s just because I’m continuing to grow. So I hope that next year I have a new set of eyes because of everything I’ve learned and that I’m looking at everything from yet another new perspective. So it got me thinking, OK, it’s past January 1st. Is this when you like give up setting goals or getting clear? What if it took me until March to get really clear? Ok, so if not, March, June? Like at what point if I’m working on articulating my goals, if I’m actively working on articulating why I want my goal, what I want them to be, at what point do I stop or declare it a failure? Am I on track or off track if I didn’t have it January 1st? I think this goes back to that moment in the woods. I think I get to decide. So I’m on track even though I’m past January 1st. Now. What would you say about yourself? Is it this calendar date that just rolled by? Is it whether you’re still actively working on it? How would you decide? After my conversation with Suzi which was my last two podcasts, I came across a quote from a book. I was scrolling through social media and I read this quote and I knew that I needed to read the book immediately. So I did. And the book is called Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment by George Leonard. And what I’m going to do today on this podcast is read you some quotes from the book and explain how I see them showing up in life with horses and in particular, how they kind of resonate around what we’ve been talking about here, which is, you know, yearly themes and goals and that kind of stuff, which thank you for all of the feedback. A lot of people had feedback about the conversations with Suzi and then also the idea of coming up with a yearly theme, that really resonated with a lot of different people. So I’m hoping that this book also adds another layer. So for sure, jump on. I had it instantly in my hands thanks to the Kindle. So you can you can grab your copy pretty easy, and I’ll have links to that in the show notes if you don’t have a way to write it down right now. Here’s the first quote from the book.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:17] If there is any sure route to success or fulfillment in life, it is to be found in the long term, essentially goalless process of mastery. It will bring you unexpected heartaches, unexpected rewards and you will never reach a final destination.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:44] I think it’s amazing how one phrase can put something into perspective. When I read the phrase, “goalless process of mastery” things just clicked together as to why setting goals at the moment for me has been a bit of a challenge. Because I think there’s a part of me that understands that there is also this goalless-ness. And then the phrase, the idea, the concept that we’re never going to reach the final destination, that’s so good. These are some of the things that made me want to read the book. So let’s go a little bit deeper. Here is another section from the book.

Stacy Westfall: [00:06:29] What is mastery? It resists definition yet can be instantly recognized. It comes in many varieties, yet follows certain unchanging laws. It brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or a destination, but rather a process or a journey. We call this journey mastery and tend to assume that it requires a special ticket available only to those born with exceptional abilities. But mastery isn’t reserved for the super talented or even for those who are fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It’s available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it, regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:22] It’s so true. I see this in my students all the time. And I can see the shift in students and their horses when they learn to love the process. And that’s what I can see now. It’s this idea that the process is a never-ending journey. And when my students focus on the process even more than the results the irony is that then they start getting better results because they’re focused on the process. Ok, here’s the next one, and this is the one that I really want to dig in a little bit more on because this is all about the plateau.

Stacy Westfall: [00:08:09] As with all significant learning,this learning was measured not in a straight line, but in stages. Brief spurts of progress separated by periods during which you seem to be getting nowhere. Still, you learned an essential skill. What’s more important, you learned about learning. For most people brought up in this society, the plateau can be a form of purgatory. It triggers disowned emotions. It flushes out hidden motivations. You realize you came to tennis not only to get exercise, but also to look good, to play with your friends, to beat your friends. You decide to have a talk with your teacher. How long, you ask, will it take you to master this thing?

Stacy Westfall: [00:09:00] Ok, this is where I really want to pause for just a minute and discuss the idea of the plateau because I think that this word plateau plays really well with the concept that Suzi introduced during our conversation in the previous two podcasts, which was the idea of climbing a ladder. So Suzi brought up the idea that sometimes when we’re doing things, we’re just kind of climbing up a ladder that somebody else built, and she used dressage as an example. What I love about adding this concept of a plateau is that immediately what comes into my mind is climbing a ladder up to the next level of a building. And then in my mind, that building is either like never-ending series of haylofts or some of those big old antique barns that you can find, especially over a New England where I’m from. And you can find these big buildings that are antique stores and you kind of climb up this staircase or something that looks almost like an old fashioned ladder. And then you go up and you explore this next level. And I think that being on the plateau, that to me is what the plateau represents and where I think–I love that the–that the book quote said, “It feels like purgatory.” I think sometimes when I initially think about a plateau–this entire concept, all coming together at one time–sometimes a plateau feels like you get up on this big flat and you’re going to walk forever and there’s nothing there kind of an idea of a plateau, but in my mind, in this imagery, what I’m looking for is I’m climbing this ladder up to this next level. And it reminds me of taking one of my kids up into the hayloft not too long ago, and we were going through some old boxes because we were looking for something and they were so excited when we were opening different boxes and they were remembering different things because of some of those old stored boxes up in that hayloft. And I think that when we’re riding the horses, it’s going up, it’s going into these levels and then really dusting things off, holding them up to the light, and really learning about them. But I want to put this in a very concrete example. So this doesn’t just sound like a warm, fuzzy thing. So because a plateau can feel like you’re getting nowhere I think it’s even more important to acknowledge what you are learning. And let’s use a riding example here. Let’s say that you’re riding a horse and you’re having trouble getting the correct lead, especially one direction. So let’s say that going to the left, you’re having trouble picking up the left lead on this horse and you’ve done some investigating already. You know it’s not happening in groundwork, in the groundwork the horse is picking up the right and left lead fine. The horse is sound. Maybe you had a vet declare that too. You can see that it’s not happening consistently everywhere, except when you’re riding. You’re kind of getting a little bit frustrated because you really want to go to the next rung on the ladder where you’re getting a consistent correct lead to the left.

Stacy Westfall: [00:12:11] What I’m suggesting is that on the plateau is where you can learn a lot of things. So what would happen if you were willing to really explore this plateau of the wrong lead going to the left? To me, what that looks like when you put it into action is that instead of being obsessed with the idea of getting the correct lead and feeling like it’s a failure, every time you get the wrong lead, you can actually get really curious. So it goes like this. You go to the right where the horse is picking up the correct lead and you, you lope to the right and you go, interesting. Like, this is what I feel when I go to the right and I know the horse 90 percent of the time gets the correctly go to the right, and 90 percent of the time gets the incorrect lead going to the left. What is different? And so you start riding with this in mind. And so going to the right, you start going, OK. When I asked the horse to lope, what am I feeling? Do I feel like the horse is leaning in, leaning out, going straight forward? Where is the hip in relationship to the shoulder? Is there a different resistance? Is it when I use my inside rein? What does that feel like? Am I using my outside rein? What does that feel like? Am I using my left leg more or my right leg more? Is my left leg forward more than my right leg? How does that feel different when I go the other direction? Because maybe if it felt like a mirror image going the other direction, since I’m getting the correct lead going to the right, what would happen if I could feel the mirror image of that going to the left? Is there something I’m doing different when I’m going to the left? Am I leaning different? Am I sitting different? How does that rein feel different? How does my leg feel different? Is the horse, is it a different area in the arena where I ask for it when I’m going to the right or the left? What’s the same and what is different? And to me this is what the plateau feels like is that you actually slow down, and instead of reaching for that next rung on the ladder, you actually start to see all the details. You see what is working and I think this is why people want to rush past it. You have to kind of fall in love with seeing what’s not working. Because if your horse is consistently picking up the wrong lead, you can learn so much from that because you get a chance to feel it over and over again. Listen to the next section of the book and see if you can get this the concept I just discussed. See if this helps you get it even more. This next section was written about a teacher teaching a human student, but this is exactly what I experience when I’m learning lessons from a horse. So listen to this.

Stacy Westfall: [00:15:14] Teaching beginners and slow students is not only fascinating but pleasurable. The talented student is likely to learn so fast the small stages in the learning process are glossed over, creating an opaque surface that hides the secret of the art form from view. With the slow student, though, the teacher is forced to deal with small incremental steps that penetrate like x-rays to the essence of the art and clearly reveal the process through which the art becomes manifest in movement.

Stacy Westfall: [00:15:53] Oh, this is exactly how I think I’ve learned some of my best lessons from horses. When a horse is struggling to learn something like the left lead and I slow myself down and I stay on that plateau as long as it takes I’m still actively exploring. I’m not just going, OK, we’ll just let the horse take the, you know, left lead a hundred times in a row with no exploring. No, I’m actively exploring. I’m saying, Oh, interesting, left lead, Ok, and what if I wiggle here? Huh. Interesting. Still the left lead? Not there. I’m still getting the wrong lead. What about this? Ok. I’m actively exploring. So there’s an activity in it, but it’s not trying to force the next rung. And I think this is what the struggle is sometimes is that it’s exploring those little tiny details that is the essence of the plateau that ironically does get you to the next rung on the ladder. As I read the book, what kept becoming more and more clear to me was that the author was doing a great job of taking me back and forth between the idea that it is important to set goals, but it’s also important to love the process. And this just clarified for me a lot of this dance. And right now, what it did for me is it–it showed me that I am craving a plateau right now. I am craving that idea because I’ve done it in the past where I slow down and I let myself really explore all the details right where I’m at. And again, the irony of this is that I know that this is a lot like planting seeds. I know that this is going to yield something bigger in the future, but it’s also letting go of the idea that it must yield something in the future or that I even know exactly what it’s going to yield. So here’s another quote.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:08] Goals and contingencies, as I’ve said, are important, but they exist in the future and the past beyond the pale of the sensory realm. Practice. The path of mastery exists only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. To love the plateau is to love the eternal now. To enjoy the inevitable spurt of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:52] And here are the final two quotes of the day that tie this all together perfectly for me. Here’s the first.

Stacy Westfall: [00:19:01] And if the traveler is fortunate, that is, if the path is complex and profound enough, the destination is two miles further away for every mile he or she travels. I’m going to say it one more time. And if the traveler is fortunate, that is, if the path is complex and profound enough, the destination is two miles further away for every mile he or she travels. What is mastery at the heart of it? Mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.

Stacy Westfall: [00:19:46] And my final question for you. Are you excited enough about this journey with horses that you’ll commit even if you never arrive? Oh, yes, this book totally hit the spot. I’ll put links to it in the show notes. Thanks again for listening, and I’ll talk to you in the next episode, or I’ll see you on the webinar on Saturday. More details over on my website.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Here is an Amazon affiliate link to the book I reference in the podcast.


  1. Elisa Emmett on January 14, 2022 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Stacy
    I’m so glad I stumbled on your podcasts nearly a year ago.
    Your podcasts lift me up when I am beating myself up about letting my horse down.
    You just make sense in your calm practical way.
    I can’t wait to hear more in 2022.
    Thanks again, all the way from Brisbane, Australia x

  2. Ruth McDermott on January 12, 2022 at 9:57 am

    Stacy, Your website looks great! Nice to see it updated. 🙂

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