From Incompetence to Competence

I first ran across the consciousness / competency model of learning a few years ago. The basic idea is that learning is a four-stage process:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – not only do you not have a particular skill, you don’t even realize that you don’t have it
  2. Conscious incompetence – you are aware of your lack of skill
  3. Conscious competence – you can exercise the skill, but you must concentrate on what you are doing
  4. Unconscious competence – you can perform skilfully without thinking about it

It’s simple, but I find it a useful framework for understanding the learning process. In particular, I tend to get demoralized during the second phase. It helps me to remember that it is just a stage and won’t last forever. I also find it useful to limit my focus to a couple of phase two skills at one time. Even trying to exercise too many phase three skills at once can be overwhelming.

Naturally, any given person will not go through all the stages for every possible skill. There are too many possible realms of expertise to even become aware of them all, let alone master them. It’s not a bad thing if I don’t achieve mastery in every field, though (at least in realms I value) I prefer to make that a conscious decision.

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