See if this sounds familiar:
You practice a skill for months or years while making seemingly little progress.
One day, you decide to compare the quality of one of your recent outputs to another one from a few months or years back. As you do, you're surprised by how much the quality of your output has improved over time.
Upon further comparison, you think to yourself "How did I not notice this massive improvement?"
I realized this a few days ago when I published one of my first articles from this blog on X.
I read it and realized that my writing wasn't as crisp, clear, or coherent as in most of my recent pieces. It got me thinking about why we sometimes don't notice massive increases in the quality of our work over a long time span.
Upon some reflection, here are some reasons that came to my mind:
Wrong Expectations About Progress
When you imagine how the quality of your work improves, you tend to think it happens linearly.
You start at point A where your work is bad and get to point B where your work is great. You assume that the path from A to B is a straight line going up until your work is great and that your work gets better the more reps you put in. But that's rarely the case.
Instead, as you get better the quality of your work will fluctuate wildly.
In the beginning, you can often notice substantial improvements in a relatively short time. But once you secure these "newbie gains", your progress becomes much less linear. While you work on your craft you hit obstacles, experience setbacks, and notice flaws that you weren't aware of before. They regularly require you to take a few steps back and learn what they want to teach you until the quality of your work increases again.
Consequently, you rarely notice that the quality of your work improves, because your expectations for how that improvement is supposed to feel are unrealistic.
Too Critical About Your Work
As you get better at your work, you also become more critical of it.
You read books about it and learn about new techniques, common mistakes, and best practices that you might want to use to improve the quality of your work. You immerse yourself in the greats of the craft and gather references for your future work that are so much better than your work is now. You learn what works best for you through practice and acquire the wisdom to do better work.
While learning more about our craft, curating a list of great works in our field, and acquiring wisdom through practice are great ways to improve it, they also provide many opportunities to become increasingly critical about your work.
The more you learn about the intricacies of your craft, the more flaws you begin to recognize in your work. The more references of great quality you gather, the easier it is to be disappointed with the quality of your work, and the more wisdom you acquire, the more opportunities you have to see how your work doesn't measure up to your potential.
That's why it's easy to become so critical of your work that you fail to notice how much its quality improves. It's almost like you train yourself to see all the major flaws in it while overlooking the little improvements you don't deem worthy of attention.
Unnoticed Bleed Over Effects
Further, the quality of your work can increase by improvements in other areas of life that are unrelated to your craft.
Hiking in the mountains can improve your craft of writing because it gives you more experiences that you can integrate into your writing which make it much more relatable or concrete. But, it's hard to notice how your efforts in a seemingly unrelated area improve your craft. There's rarely a direction connection that makes their impact obvious.
Thus, it's easy to treat each activity as separate and fail to notice how one has a positive effect on another.
Stuck on the Plateau of Latent Potential
Lastly, you often spend a lot of time on what James Clear calls the Plateau of Latent Potential.
It's the place where you toil away at something but don't see any obvious improvements. Being stuck on that plateau can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening. After all, you're still putting in a lot of work every but don't see any concrete results or even improvements. This lack of tangible improvements can easily lead you to quit your craft in frustration.
But, more often than not, the Plateau of Latent Potential is just a place you find yourself in when you are close to a different level of quality. It's a test of grit and mental fortitude. Can you put in a lot of work without tangible signs of improvement to unlock your next level of growth?
If you stick with your work through the Plateau, you'll often see sudden, surprising improvements in your craft after a long time of apparent stagnation. These improvements are rarely a result of a new insight, technique, or change. Instead, they're the result of hundreds of tiny almost imperceptible improvements, that accumulated almost invisibly in the background until they gathered enough force to unlock your new level of performance.
But, it's incredibly hard to notice these tiny improvements while you feel stuck on the Plateau of Latent Potential. Usually, you only realize that you've been on the Plateau of Latent Potential after you've broken through it and unlocked that new level of performance. This makes it very difficult to notice the increase in the quality of your work.
With that out of the way, what can you do to notice the increase in the quality of your work more often?
Compare Recent Work Against Old Work
You've seen that the quality of your work doesn't improve linearly.
As a result, comparing to consecutive pieces of work has a much lower chance of showing signs of improvement, than comparing two pieces of work that were created further apart. Doing so makes it much easier to notice improvements because they clearly stand out. This is what happened to me when I compared the quality of a recent article with one I wrote five years ago. The improvements in my craft were so obvious that I noticed them immediately. But if I had compared the quality of this article, with the one I published one or two weeks ago I'd probably not seen any improvements.
Hence, compare the quality of two works that were created at least a few months apart.
Judge Your Work Against Your Previous Work
As you've seen, as your knowledge, reference points, and wisdom grow you can become overly critical of your work which blinds you to its improving quality.
To counteract this tendency, you can judge different pieces of your work against each other, instead of against the work of others. While doing the latter is often helpful in finding inspiration, aspiration, and new ideas it's often unfair to yourself. The great works are great for a reason. Their creators often practiced for decades and created many thousands of other works that most people never heard about just to get to the level of skill that made their greatest work possible.
You don't have that level of practice, attention, or skill yet. So, comparing your work to the greats of your field does little more than highlight the flaws in your work while overshadowing its improvements.
Judging one piece of your work against another can help offset this and make it much easier to notice improvements in its quality.
Identify if You are on the Plateau of Latent Potential
Periodically ask yourself if you are on the Plateau of Latent Potential.
This is especially true if you feel frustrated or stuck. It's easy to see frustration as something to be avoided or as a sign that you're just no good at your craft, but it can also be a sign that you simply need to stay in the game.
I've found no definitive answer on how you can differentiate between the two yet. But, maybe others can.
Seek out experts in your field, ask mentors, or consult your coach.
They are detached from your work, often farther ahead in your craft, and can thus judge the quality of your work much better than you can. Show them a few pieces of your work, some older, and a few newer ones, and ask them if they see an increase in quality. Their feedback can help you determine if you're stuck on the Plateau of Latent Potential or not.
You can also ask yourself if you are still having fun doing the work you do.
If you do and can easily see yourself doing it for a few more months or even years chances are that you should stick it out. Staying in the game for long enough is one of the surest ways of breaking through the Plateau of Latent Potential. If you have the motivation to do that, stay in the game.
No one can decide if you should stay in the game or quit. Experts can give you feedback and advice, and the fun you're having while doing your work can be a good indicator that you should stick with it, but ultimately it's a highly personal decision that you need to make yourself.
Sometimes, you have to listen to yourself, step away from your work for a while, and experiment with other things to see if you still want to work on improving the quality of your craft or move on to other things.
Judge Your Work by Different Standards
Lastly, you can judge your work by other standards.
This goes back to the idea that sometimes the quality of your craft improves through progress in seemingly unrelated areas of your life. See if you notice hints of improvements in other areas of life that have carried over into your main craft. Maybe they can focus your attention on an increase in quality that you weren't aware of before.
So, to wrap things up:
You often don't notice how much the quality of your work improves.
The reasons for your obliviousness are that the improvement of quality isn't linear, that you could be too critical of your work, that you don't notice quality increases coming from different areas of your life, and that you might be stuck on the Plateau of Latent Potential.
To counteract these reasons you can compare your recent work against your older work, judge your work against itself instead of the work of others, ask yourself if you're on the Plateau of Latent Potential, and judge your work by different standards.
Doing these things might not mean that you catch every improvement in the quality of your work, but it will help you see more improvements, which is already a win.
Because seeing improvements in the quality of your work has many benefits.
It's motivating because you making progress toward something you value always is. It creates confidence because you notice that you get more competent and it's fun, too.
The more you can see yourself making progress, the more likely you are to create the life you want.