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Getting through the learning curve

Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license from Flickr user Per Mosseby (

The idea that there are four stages to the learning curve isn’t new, and yet I find few people seem to know about it. Not understanding the nature of the stages leads to premature giving up on learning a new skill.

Spoiler alert: just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re learning, but if you’re truly learning something you will probably be uncomfortable.

The stages have clear labels.

Unconscious incompetence

Do you remember being ten years old and thinking the adults were just being mean because they wouldn’t let you drive? After all, you did fine with the video game. How hard could it be? There’s a wheel, there’s a pedal, there’s another pedal. Simple.

When you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re probably fairly comfortable. We start out most skills this way. Accomplished practitioners make whatever you want to do look easy.

When my 20-something son was eight years old, he would try something he saw someone else doing—but only once. If he didn’t immediately master it, he assumed he couldn’t do it. Video games helped him get over that as he confronted what he didn’t know, learned from his mistakes, and advanced through trial and error. He learned to tolerate the second stage.

Conscious incompetence

This stage feels uncomfortable, especially if you thought something looked easy. When you actually began to learn to drive, you probably faced this. All of a sudden the whole process seemed impossibly complicated, especially if you learned on a stick shift.

Let’s see, step on the clutch, move the gear shift up into first gear, give it a little gas, gradually let out on the clutch. Feel your heart jump up into your throat as the car lurches a couple of times and dies. Start the car again.

Even if you learned on an automatic, you probably accelerated too fast, slammed on the brakes, panicked at making turns, etc.

I remember my driver’s education teacher having a semi-permanent twitch around his right eye. He rode the entire time with his foot on the extra brake that driver’s education cars had back then (and probably still do).

In this stage, you confront head on just exactly how much you don’t know. No wonder it’s uncomfortable. And because a lot of people assume discomfort indicates a mismatch, a lack of ability, or an insurmountable lack of skill, they give up.

If you stick with it, though, you reach the third stage.

Conscious competence

Congratulations! You managed to not kill the engine. Nobody wrecked. The driver’s ed instructor started to breath again without that annoying wheezing sound.

You still don’t enjoy it, though. That’s because you have to consciously think about every move you make. It’s exhausting to consciously step through each motion of shifting gears, slowing down for a turn, coordinating clutching and braking (or braking and accelerating).

It’s still uncomfortable, because you can’t relax for a second. You. Must. Concentrate. On. Every. Move.

So even in this stage, people give up. They think it should be easier.

My son got through this stage and well into the fourth stage in his video game play, whereas I never really made it out of this third stage, even though I have several high-level characters in World of Warcraft. I can manage simple single-NPC fights (pardon the jargon—that just means I can fight one computer-run character) fairly easily, because it really only involves three or four buttons. I struggle with more complex encounters because I have to consciously think about every move I make, and therefore I can’t make them fast enough to really help a team in a group fight. I wind up dragging everyone else down.

Most of us got through this stage learning to drive and reached the fourth stage.

Unconscious Competence

Now you can drive around town steering with one hand, lighting up a cigarette with the other, brushing your hair, talking on the phone, all at the same time because you don’t have to consciously think about any of it. Shifting gears comes as naturally as walking.

You just do it without thinking about it. You have internalized it.

Understandably, this is a pretty comfortable stage. To get to this stage, though, you have to stick with it through the second and third stage—with no assurance you can do so. But you can’t reach the fourth stage any other way.

If you truly want it, stick with it

Don’t fool yourself. You may reasonably decide a given goal requires more effort than the benefit justifies. That’s an economic decision—a decision about the best use of resources, such as time and money. While it makes sense to decide to leave off pursuing something not worth the effort, don’t mistake it for discouragement stemming from simple discomfort.

Once again: just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean you are learning, but if you are really learning, you will probably be uncomfortable. Perhaps that insight can help you evaluate your allocation of resources and help you stick with the goals you truly deem worthwhile.

About the writer

Donn King helps you communicate confidently. He writes a lot, too, a habit he hasn’t been able to break for nearly 50 years. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.