The Three Stage Model of Skill Acquisition

The path to mastering a skill is long.

The path to mastery can take many twists and turns.

However, on that path everyone passes through these 3 stages.

And knowing what stage you’re in can speed up your learning by months — or years. While saving you a ton of frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

Cognitive (Early) Stage


The first stage of skill acquisition is the Cognitive Stage.

In this stage you have to be intellectually aware of everything that you’re doing.

You require total focus.

You’re following a series of steps (first I do this, then I do that …).

Nothing is intuitive.

This step is largely academic or intellectual. If you’re currently applying this skill at all, it’s with the aid of a mentor or a tutorial.

This is the hardest stage — you don’t really know what you’re doing. It’s easy to feel stupid or powerless.

Don’t feel stupid. Just say to yourself “I’m in the Cognitive Phase — this is supposed to hurt”

This stage is often the most exciting.

Associative (Intermediate) Stage


Once you’re in the associate phase you have a bit more flexibility.

Now you can begin practicing the task. Not just while having your hand held, but in the ‘real world’.

Know you can begin noticing environmental feedback — and begin adjusting your approach based on that feedback. (First I did this, then this happened. So maybe if I change X ….).

This is the phase where Deliberate Practice takes place. And is the focus of the definitive book on Peak Performance.

This phase can also be painful. You may be working right at the limits of your powers.

Say to yourself, “This may be painful — but I’m at my edge. This is where my powers grow”

Autonomous (Late) Stage


This is the final stage of skill acquisition.

At this point you can perform the skill effectively and efficiently without thinking about it.

You don’t even necessarily need to be paying attention to what you’re doing at all.

This stage is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS for continued skill acquisition.

Once you get to this phase — your skill plateaus.

You have to ask yourself, “Is this as far as I want to extend my powers in this skill?”

If so, you can relax. Start a new skill at The Cognitive Stage.

Or you can elect to go back to an earlier stage.

We already know how to speak, but what if we made a conscious effort to speak clearly?

We already know how to read, but what if we learned how to read better?

This post was written using notes from The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman.

Did you know that you can win The First 20 Hours — along with $200 worth of my other favourite books? Enter here.

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