The Three Phases of Professional Mastery Knowing Which Part You're In, Working Through It, and Moving On...

The professional life cycle has many hills and valleys. At some moments, we feel exhilarated by a new and daunting challenge. At other points in our professional lives, we feel a sense of flow and comfort in our roles, with full knowledge of what to expect. However, if change doesn’t happen we become lethargic and bored.

Many psychologists have studied this phenomenon. Today, it is typically illustrated as an S-Curve. This S-Curve is comprised of thee critical cycle elements that warrant attention if we are to thrive professionally. Megan Dalla-Camina and Michelle McQuaid, authors of Lead Like A Woman, explain these three phases:

Phase 1—The White-Knuckle Years
This is the time in your career when the learning curve is steep and long. Everything is new; you’re developing new and challenging skills and likely stepping outside your comfort zone. You are not entirely comfortable in this phase, but you’re thriving nonetheless and growing exponentially.

Phase 2—Accelerating Competence and Confidence
In this second phase, you are well on your way to mastery. You are feeling a professional flow and confidence in your role. You are also comfortable taking on increasingly demanding work and are flourishing in your position. You are in your professional prime.

Phase 3—Learning Plateau
This third and final phase usually happens between eight to ten years into a position. At this point, you’ve mastered every needed skill and conquered every possible challenge. This phase, according to Swedish psychologist and mastery expert Anders Ericsson is when skills become habit and automatic. You are on the upper portion of the S-Curve and have officially plateaued into an expert.

Photo from Lead Like A Woman by Megan Dalla-Camina and Michelle McQuaid
Photo from Lead Like A Woman by Megan Dalla-Camina and Michelle McQuaid


It’s important to draw our attention to this third and final phase of the learning plateau. As we master our craft, Ericsson also observes that many of us start feeling a sense of anxiety, frustration, and agitation. During this last phase we’re no longer pushing our brains; we are deprived of the exhilaration of conquering challenges and mastering difficult tasks and skills. In light of this, it’s important to take a step back and pivot toward a new challenge, as daunting as the thought may be. According to Dalla-Camina and McQuaid, this is when we should start looking into career advancement opportunities. At this point, it’s time for a change.

Knowing the psychology behind the S-Curve is critical if we are to thrive professionally (and ultimately personally). If we’re aware of these three phases, we can embrace them and make the most of them. We can also be kinder to ourselves while we’re going through the initial white-knuckle phase trying to re-wire our brains to stay afloat, and allow ourselves to ride the wave of professional flow when we reach the accelerated competence and confidence phase.

Your thoughts…

Take inventory of your career at the moment. Where would you situate yourself on the S-Curve? If you are in phase 1, do you feel relieved knowing that this is a natural and healthy part of the growing process? If you are in phase 2, are you enjoying and relishing the professional flow you are experiencing? If you are in phase 3, are you strategically looking to pivot and up the ante a little? Remember, like everything in life, the S-Curve is a natural process everyone goes through. Be mindful of it and allow yourself to react accordingly. Please feel free to leave a comment in the reply box below or, join our private FB discussion forum!


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