Four Stages of Competence

The stages of competence define how we learn. Four very distinct stages have been identified. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Stage One – Unconscious incompetence: We all have to start somewhere, and this is the place. The quote: “I don’t know what I don’t know” applies here. Before the next level can be achieved we have to recognize that we’re in this phase. In some cases we deny the importance of the skill we’re attempting to learn and we give up. 

  • Stage Two – Conscious incompetence: At this point we get that we’re not good at the skill we’re to trying learn. In some situations we’re okay with the mistake because we see the greater good in learning the skill, in others we throw our hands up and quit. 

  • Stage Three – Conscious competence: This is when the “ah ha” moment happens. We realize that we can do this and it feels good so we’re motivated to continue. While the task can be done it takes concentration to get the desired results. Sometimes it has to be broken down into steps to make it manageable. 

  • Stage Four – Unconscious competence: At this stage the skill has become second nature. It can be performed so easily that it can be done while doing something else (multi-tasking). It’s at this stage that teaching the skill to others is possible.

Learning is something that we should never stop doing no matter how much of a challenge it may seem to be. It keeps our brain active and it keeps our brains and our bodies connected. I experienced this when I was taking classical guitar lessons. I’ve played the acoustic guitar for a number of years. The fingers on my left hand can easily move from a D chord to a G or an A or a B minor while my right hand hits the strings to make music. The classical guitar set me back years. If I spent any time in the “unconscious incompetence” stage it wasn’t very long because I could feel the incompetence in a big way. All of my bad habits were put under a microscope. It was difficult to stick with. Who wants to practice something that you’re lousy at? Not me, that’s for sure. I did persevere and I was getting close to the “conscious competence” level when I had to put things on hold. I’m ready to get back to it the classical guitar. I know I will be starting at the second level but that’s okay. I’m ready for it this time.

These stages of learning apply to everything that we do. I see people give up on a fitness activity or lifestyle change because it feels like a waste of time. It’s not. It’s a part of the process. It’s the journey. Sometimes, when we let it, the journey can be way more rewarding than the destination.

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