May 02, 2013


The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success. By Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson. Dutton. $27.95.

Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War. By Alison Buckholtz. Tarcher/Penguin. $15.95.

     Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson are so enamored of their ideas and cleverness in The Plateau Effect that they can’t quite decide which metaphors to use and which examples to give. They start with acclimation, talk about “one-hit wonders,” and then comment that plateaus “are like governors that cap your U-Haul van speed at fifty miles per hour. We will show you how to disable this secret governor and turn on your inner Maserati.” Uh, yes, guys, but if I’m driving a U-Haul for cargo capacity, a Maserati won’t do me much good, will it? But never mind – journalist Sullivan and math-and-computer-science professor Thompson are zooming merrily along throughout this book and doing everything they can to pull readers along with them. And there is plenty of interesting material here, although the breathless way with which the authors talk about finding “incredibly valuable strategies from emerging areas of scientific research” gets old quickly. That is not supposed to happen – Sullivan and Thompson explain that many things “get old” quickly, because humans are hard-wired to get used to the familiar once it is familiar, but that is certainly not what they want to happen to their book. That is why they talk about “the engine that can propel you off your joyless plain” on one page (not noticing that a plain is scarcely a plateau) and say on the next that “many of us are elephants.”

     Well, all right. The Plateau Effect is stylistically overdone and inconsistent, but it does offer valuable information and a helpful (if not really unique) way of looking at stagnation. Using the Blockbuster store chain as a bad example and Derek Jeter as a good one, Sullivan and Thompson talk about ways people and companies get stuck and ways they reinvent themselves – or fail to do so. They talk about concepts such as fuzzing –“applying inputs with some degree of randomness, then looking for unexpected outcomes” – and spaced repetition, a technique designed to improve rote memorization. They get into well-known notions, such as the memory palace, and less-known ones, such as “the greedy algorithm” – citing for that one a famous experiment in which 70% of four-year-olds given a marshmallow and promised a second one if they would not eat the first for 10 minutes went ahead and ate the first one. The authors are all over the place, geographically and argumentatively, in discussing their and others’ research and findings, but after thoroughly (or at least extensively) exploring the Plateau Effect, they finally get around to telling readers what to do to overcome it. Their three recommendations – attention, agility and application – are ways to focus not better but differently on your situation, whether personal or corporate, so you can get off the plateau and climb higher. The specifics are worth considering, although they are presented in rather diffuse form that makes it difficult at times to figure out exactly what Sullivan and Thompson think a person or company should do. The mixture of cleverness and cliché becomes galling: the same chapter that includes a fascinating discussion of “failing faster” also contains the old line, “I may be fat, but you’re ugly, and I can lose weight.” The book’s Appendix, which sums up in six pages the arguments made in 250-some pages in the rest of The Plateau Effect, is a better place to start with this book than the first page, because those six pages are pithy and pointed rather than discursive and rambling. There are a lot of good ideas here, but digging them out is something of a chore – except in the straightforward Appendix, which will likely tempt you to go back and read the authors’ arguments in more detail. If so, caveat lector.

     Sullivan and Thompson, in arguing about plateaus as symptoms of stagnation, specifically distinguish them from the stability of families: “There’s an important distinction between reaching life equilibrium and being stuck in [sic] a plateau. Families need stability to thrive. People need a sense of safety… As anyone who has tried to juggle a marriage, a job, and child rearing knows, there is no such thing as status quo at home.” And how much more difficult this fight for stability is in military families, which struggle daily with constant uncertainty and worry, trying to combat depression and fatigue on the home front while a family member is engaged in combat of a different sort thousands of miles away. Alison Buckholtz, wife of an active-duty Navy pilot, chronicled the ups and downs of life on the home front in 2009 in Standing By, which is now available in paperback with an update in the form of a new Afterword. The attempt to lead a normal life – however defined – with a family member far away and in grave physical danger, while you and your children go through a transient existence (as military families do in moving from place to place), is unimaginably difficult for most people to comprehend, but Buckholtz manages to make it understandable without lapsing into martyrdom or drowning in self-pity. Her writing is clearly therapeutic for her, being one way she copes and helps her children manage, too. The specifics of what she and her kids go through are just that – specifics, unique to her family’s situation. But she tells them in such a way that readers will recognize that her family stands for all military families in its difficulties, coping strategies, trials and triumphs.

     Not everything in the book is entirely clear. Buckholtz was comfortably single in the sophisticated world of Washington, D.C., before becoming a military wife, and her own transition from one world to another is given short shrift: she does indicate that she changed from being a judgmental East Coast liberal to a Navy wife with very different views, but just how that happened is less than apparent. Also, the fact that Buckholtz is Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian military gets some discussion but seems as if it could use more depth. And the book’s nonlinear structure sometimes makes it difficult to understand just what happened when. Nevertheless, on balance this book is highly effective at explaining what military families go through – for example, the attempts of Buckholtz’ two young children to deal with the extended absence of their father are heartrending, but no less involving for their predictability. Likewise, the enormous support that military families give each other, although scarcely surprising, is very much worth reading about and understanding. “We didn’t think we could survive it, but we did,” a friend of Buckholtz is quoted as telling her in the Afterword – referring to the friend’s own situation, but equally applicable to the author’s. Buckholtz clearly has tremendous inner strength, comparable at home to that of her husband, Scott, during his deployment. But what makes Standing By meaningful is the knowledge that this story is not unique and that thousands upon thousands of other military families are enduring situations that differ considerably in detail but that ultimately require the same kind of grit, persistence and ability to handle extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

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