Most successful careers contain actually quite a few plateaus once observed up close. Wikipedia entries of famous people fascinate me, because they show that their paths are not as clean as one might remember.
There is a variant of the hero’s journey that is often overlooked, because it is far less dramatic and more mundane. One where the hero does not fight the fierce monster or rises up to the insurmountable challenge. Rather, one where the hero just has to endure a slog, has to dig deep to find motivation, has to live with the fact that between epic challenges and glorious victories there are a lot of days where things just go neither right nor wrong.
Pick a random famous person that you admire and look at their Wikipedia entry. You will find stellar achievements at the top, but once you scroll down, you get to the career plateaus where artists fight petty legal battles with prior management, where uninspired albums and movies are released, and where whole seasons are just meaningless struggle. Wikipedia entry often do not gloss over those periods or artificially dramatizes them like a lot of biographies.
Another example is the stock market: Over a period of 20 years, the ten best days make up for more than half of the stock market. That literally means that despite healthy total returns on 99.9% of the days nothing of substance happens or even worse, massive setbacks happen. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict those ten days. The only viable strategy is to play the long game and stay invested in the market, endure the losses with the knowledge that you will make up for it in the long run.
The meta-achievement of any career is making it through those plateaus of utter mundaneness, keep honing your skills, putting yourself out there, increasing the luck-surface-area, being ready for the next meaningful step without knowing when and what it will be. Because one thing is true: If you keep trying and learning, the plateau of meh is temporary.
I was reminded by all of this by Jeffrey Zeldman telling the story of his career in the advertising industry and the messiness behind every success:
The ability to keep coming up with more ads was why this Moses-looking dude had a roomful of shiny trophies, and I did not. If I wanted a career like his, I would have to seek deeply in my soul for the strength and willingness not to give up. Career aside, if I wanted to create meaningful work, I would need to develop the patience and willingness to watch people kill my darlings, and come back with newer, fresher, better darlings. […] But keeping a positive attitude when an idea I’ve fallen in love with gets rejected remains the second most important thing I can do on a daily basis as I practice my current craft. […] The well is never dry. We only run out of ideas when we choose to stop doing the work.Sticking To It – Automattic Design