It’s probably a little too simple of a statement however to get you through the times when you’re really struggling to improve on a skill and achieve a level of competence. The process of achieving competence is a little more complex than a statement like ‘practice makes perfect’, but it’s still pretty simple… simple but not necessarily easy. Let me explain…
I first learned about The Four Stages of Competence in my initial training to become a coach. Apparently the theory of ‘Four Stages of Learning a New Skill’ was developed at Gordon Training International in the 1970’s. I’ve found the theory useful for understanding the natural process of learning a new skill, and particularly useful for assisting my students to prepare for the inevitable struggles and strains on motivation as they develop new skills.
The First Stage: Unconscious Incompetence
This stage includes all of the things that you ‘don’t know that you don’t know’. Any skill that you can do today, before you learned it, there was a time that you didn’t even know that it existed. Coaching is now my area of expertise but I can also remember quite clearly the first time I’d ever heard of the term coaching in the context of psychology.
You might have been small child the first time you learned what a car was but that doesn’t change the fact that before you learned to drive there was a time that you didn’t even know what a car was. (As a side note, I think it’s kind of exciting to know that in the future you could become highly competent and love a skill that today you don’t even know exists.)
The Second Stage: Conscious Incompetence
This is the stage that I like to joke is ‘when you’re aware of how bad you are’. It’s when you have begun with a new skill, often something that you perceive will bring you joy, or further your career, or enhance relationships, etc., and you soon find yourself making more mistakes than you thought, you realise it’s possible to feel sillier than you thought, and it’s more frustrating than you thought it would be. All of these can lead to a wane in your motivation levels.
Understanding this stage in the process is the most important of all the stages because it’s about understanding that the struggle is not only natural but necessary if growth really is the objective.
If someone is going to give up at learning a new skill, this is most often the stage in which it will happen. Creating the new thought patterns required to gain competence can take up a lot of energy and it often feels like it would be much easier to just give up, to move onto something new or, better still, to be distracted by all of the never-ending day-to-day activities because they also give you some great excuses for why you chose to give up.
The Third Stage: Conscious Competence
With practice and persistence, you move into stage three. In this stage you have awareness that you know what you’re doing but there is still a lot of conscious thought put into your actions, but less and less required the more you practice.
The Fourth Stage: Unconscious Competence
In the fourth stage, the practiced skill has become second nature and can be performed with ease. You don’t have to think consciously about the task and it becomes possible to do additional tasks at the same time if desired/required. At this stage it is also possible to teach the skill to others. A common and often taken for granted example is walking. We don’t tend to remember the focus and energy that was required to learn to walk because it most often occurs and a very early age. Once past being a toddler, the skill of walking is done with virtually no conscious thought.
The stages of learning are one of the laws of life; if you practice at a new skill, and keep practicing, it is inevitable that you have to achieve a level of competence. Guaranteed. Simple but not always easy.
If you start on a new skill and decide it’s not for you – and I mean check in with yourself and know in your heart that it’s really not what you want – then let it go.
If you want to keep going but you’re struggling to gain competence and confidence in yourself, then know that you’re probably in stage two. Telling yourself ‘practice makes perfect’ may help sometimes. What this saying often doesn’t do is give enough credence to stage two so that it’s an accepted part of moving into stage three. Understanding that stage two is a natural part of gaining competence, and reminding yourself of that, means giving yourself permission when required to stop, take a respite, and tell yourself that you’ll pick it up again tomorrow with faith.
“Ah, mastery… what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills… and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.” – Gail Sheehy