Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson are the authors of The Plateau Effect, a book that takes a look at why people in all kinds of pursuits will succeed to a point and then be unable to improve.
We caught up with them to talk about their book, the future of the publishing industry, and how to effectively write a book with another person.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What are your general backgrounds? What were you doing prior to the book?
BOB SULLIVAN & HUGH THOMPSON: Bob has been writing about the dramatic changes to life, identity, money, and culture that result from the digital age since before most Americans had an e-mail address. He’s been an investigative journalist for NBC News and MSNBC.com for almost 20 years, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a tale about technology or money that he hasn’t covered.
Hugh holds a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics but spent most of his career as a successful technology entrepreneur. He also taught at Columbia University for several years and spends most of his time travelling the globe every year to teach executives and engineers at some of the world’s biggest companies how to protect themselves from 20-first-century hazards. After years of speaking engagements and conducting research together, we synthesized scholarship and experiments from around the world to explain why people and businesses hit plateaus and how they break free.
BI: For the normals, what is the plateau effect?
BS & HT: Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, play an instrument or start a business has run into the plateau effect. It is the reason that hard work eventually stops working. We succeed and then we plateau. In researching this book we talked to hundreds of people across fields like economics, psychology, business and sports – looking for the causes of plateaus. It turns out that plateaus have a collection of roots that cut across disciplines. Our book is an exploration of these causes, and the tactics that some of the most successful people and businesses in the world have used to break through to their greatest accomplishments.
BI: Are there any good examples of the plateau effect being recognised and overcome?
BS & HT: Some of the greatest professional athletes, businesses, and transformation stories have happened because people have recognised that they were in a plateau and then taken action. In business, some of the best examples are in so called “tech pivots” – when a tech company takes a hard to fill an area of the market that is growing rapidly. This is an area that you personally have covered pretty extensively, and behind most of those pivots was a plateau and then a breakthrough.
A concept that’s catching on in Silicon Valley is “pretotyping,” essentially building a quick mockup of a new product or service and then getting direct feedback from would-be customers. With pretotypes, you can fail quickly and cheaply for bad business ideas and get to an idea that is going to hit faster. Even large companies are starting to use this approach to find new, high-growth areas to break out of market saturation plateaus.
BI: Writing a book by yourself is a straightforward proposition – how did you two effectively co-author?
BS & HT: We both come from different backgrounds, which turned out to be a huge asset. As we conducted research and interviews for the book, we kept running into the same plateau causes across very diverse fields. We then split the book into chapters based on those causes, each taking the lead on half of them. At one point, after we’d done most of the core research, we were rapid firing vignettes to each other. It was one of the most fun times we had with the book because we knew that the email attachment had a discovery. At the end we kept switching chapters back and forth until each one had our personal fingerprints on it.
BI: What role (if any) does technology play in your writing process? Do you write on a laptop, tablet, something else? Keep notes in Evernote?
BS & HT: At the beginning, we used Google Docs. It was great for writing schedules and raw notes. Once we had the outline down, we moved to Dropbox to keep track of versions and have a common place to store our work. We think that technology makes it easier than ever for people come together and create something great.
BI: Does the fact that some people will be reading your book on an e-reader change anything about your writing process? Are there any special considerations to make?
BS & HT: We’re both early adopters of technology, and an e-reader is how Hugh imagined reading the book when it was done. Bob instead projected himself onto a tropical island and had the hardback open. Understanding that many people will read the book on an e-reader though did push us to “chunkify” the book a bit. One day we imagine people will be able to buy sections of a book for a dollar or two.
BI: Are paper books going extinct?
BS & HT: We don’t think paper books are going away. Think about the joy and delight you experience when you get a handwritten note instead of something conjured up in Microsoft Word. A book can give that same feeling. Turning a page, knowing how far you are into it – you just can’t simulate that on an ereader – yet! Also, as authors, whatever would you sign?
BI: When you read for pleasure, do you prefer paper books or an e-reader? Why?
BS & HT: Between us, we have almost every gadget Silicon Valley has churned out. If we had an e-reader and a hardback book sitting in front of us, I think we’d both opt for the hardback. The reality is though that sometimes we aren’t willing to wait. Bookstores are getting harder to find and the folks at UPS still take two days to show up with a box at your door. When we just can’t wait, then we’ll download a book.
BI: Are e-books ultimately good or bad for the publishing industry? Somewhere in between?
BS & HT: Easy access to books is good for everyone, but authors and publishers need to take an active role in making sure that the industry stays vibrant in the world of e-books. When more people start to really use tablets we think they will seek out longer, more in depth media like magazine pieces or books. Just as smart phones have harmed our attention spans and drive us towards consuming small chunks of information in places like Twitter, tablets are exciting because they will drive us towards longer-form contact.
BI: What’s the future of books, physical and otherwise?
BS & HT: We don’t think the book industry is in a plateau – far from it! People are hungrier than ever for a great read. While the way we consume great stories is changing, there will always be books, and there will always be readers like us hungry to pour over them.
BI: Any last thoughts?
BS & HT: Miracle Berries! Read the book and you’ll see why…
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