The Four Stages Of Competence

Zainab Zaki
3 min readJan 26, 2017


There are four stages of developing competence:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence — This is the phase where you don’t know what you don’t know. There is a skill that you are missing but you don’t even know what it is yet. This is the most vulnerable and dangerous stage as it applies to the context of our work lives. There are a lot of things in this world we don’t know and we are ok with that. Ignorance is bliss after all. Not when it comes to our careers. We may not want to or need to know the details of every aspect of our enterprise, when it comes to our specific jobs and our soft skills, it is disastrous for us to not know what we are missing. But then again, this stage is the starting point of all learning. So we must acknowledge that there will always be things about our jobs and ourselves that we don’t yet know we need to improve while trusting that when the time and circumstance is right, we will naturally move to the next stage which is knowing what we don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetence — This is the stage where we realize there is a gap and identify the exact skill we need to develop. We come to terms with our ignorance and incompetence in a particular area. Here we come to a crossroads. We have to make a decision whether to lean in and begin the journey of learning this skill or acknowledge we have a gap in a particular area and be intentional about living with it. For the most part, our choice will always be to learn and grow. What is life without consistently learning and growing. Both personally and professionally. And so, once we decide we have a gap, we set to work to close it.
  3. Conscious Competence — This is where the learning begins. Conscious competence is the stage where we are actively working on the skill but we are yet novices. We try some things, we fail, we learn some lessons and try again. We keep getting better. Our competence grows slowly and surely but it doesn’t come naturally yet. We still have a ways to go before our competency becomes a part of our DNA. The key here is to be persistent and determined and not giving up.
  4. Unconscious Competence — The final stage where we’ve mastered the new skill or behavior such that its instinctual. We aren’t practicing anymore. While we’re still learning and growing, we’ve established a strong foundation and can be confident about our competency in that area.

As an example, one gap I didn’t realize I had was the ability to have a positive and stable temperament when I find myself in frustrating situations. The specific feedback I received was “1) Not assuming positive intent, 2) Jumping to conclusions, and 3) Temperament during tough conversations” While it seems obvious every professional would have these skills, it is something that does not come naturally to me. We are all shaped by our formative years and our DNA. I only realized this was a gap after I was passed up for promotion recently. My work ethic, results, performance are all impeccable but because I exhibited ‘negative sentiment’ during a particularly frustrating period of our project, I was penalized. The funny thing is, I have suffered consequences for this behavior in the past — I was once fired from a job because I expressed my frustrations a bit too strongly. While there is a lot of nuance, context and detail to that specific situation (it wasn’t just my reaction) the dots didn’t quite connect for me that last time.

I wouldn’t have realized the gap existed if it weren’t for missing a promotion I absolutely deserved. Now I know. I am now in the Conscious Competence stage where I deeply understand my gaps and am working deliberately towards closing them.

Here’s to having several swift journeys from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence in many different areas of our lives.