Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

On Being Stuck in the Middle

A long road

No matter what you’re doing or what you’re trying to learn, you invariably reach a point where you’ve acquired a certain level of skill and proficiency. And while advanced ability and mastery is closer than when you started, it’s still far away. Sometimes, it seems impossibly far away.

I call that being stuck in the middle. The point at which you can do a few things, but you can’t do them at the level you need or want to.

Being stuck in the middle can be frustrating. It can sap your confidence and motivation. It can take away the joy you used feel when doing whatever it is you’re doing. This is especially true if others seem to be making more headway than you are.

What can you do to deal with being stuck in the middle? Here’s some advice that I think can help you.

Mix Things Up

Often, being stuck in the middle is frustrating because you’re bored with the approach or materials that you’re using. Why be chained to that approach or to those materials?

Let’s say you’re learning the Python programming language and the course you’re taking sticks to a certain textbook or a certain way of doing things.

Challenge Yourself

Being stuck in the middle can also be frustrating because you don’t feel like you’re learning anything new.

Try working at a level that’s slightly more difficult than where you’re at now. Maybe you’re learning German (or some other language). Try reading a short article in a newspaper or online. Or, listen to the radio news — if necessary, turn to something like Deutsche Welle’s slowly spoken news reports.

Sure, you’ll be out of your comfort zone. Sure, you’ll be struggling. But you can use that discomfort and effort to move forward.

Use Your Skills

When you’re stuck in the middle, you’re often at the crossroads between the theoretical and the practical. You’ve probably been doing exercises from textbooks or learning techniques. That’s all well and good, but to progress you have to move beyond that.

One great way to move forward is to put the skills you’ve been learning into action. Write a small program or script to automate a task. Try writing in the language you’re learning or having a conversation with a native speaker. Run a kilometre or two farther, or do five more repetitions of an exercise.

You’ll probably stumble. You might even fall. But not only will be be putting your skills to work, you’ll see areas where you can improve. That can only help you move forward.


The hyperachievers of this world will recoil in shock at this suggestion. To them, quit is a four-letter word. It carries the stink of failure. It marks you.

Don’t listen to that talk. Sometimes, quitting is the right path. And there are two forks to that path.

The first fork in the path is throwing in the towel. Giving something up completely, then moving on to something else. It’s not an easy out. In fact, quitting can be very a very difficult decision. Sometimes, though, you need to know when to quit.

The other fork in the path is understanding that your goals might be different from those of other people. With that in mind, you can stay on the path and stay at the level you’re at now.

Maybe you don’t want or need to become fluent in the language you’re learning. You just need enough to get by when travelling or to glean key points from newspaper articles or blog posts. Maybe you don’t want to become a web designer. You might only need to learn enough HTML and CSS to build a personal website. Maybe earning a black belt in a martial art doesn’t interest you. But you enjoy the martial art, you enjoy the camaraderie of the gym, and you enjoy the physical challenge.

You can choose to maintain the level of skill or knowledge you’ve achieved but not bother to advance much more or at all. Sure, you’ll pick up a little bit of extra knowledge here and there, but you won’t become an expert. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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