The Surprise of Building Mastery
And actually recognizing it when it happens
Building mastery can feel rather out reach when it seems like you’re starting from next to nothing.
Three years ago, my world came shattering down. I left a job with horrible conditions and my career paid the price. My mental illness became more persistent and disabling than it had ever been before. I was working for an employer I had zero respect for, and I wasn’t able to work much because of my illness.
I felt like I couldn’t do much of anything except for being sick.
When I decided to start a mental health blog on Wordpress, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not sure I had even read a single blog post before, and I certainly hadn’t written one.
I went in approaching it as a hobby, with no thought of taking it anywhere beyond that. There was a lot to learn, but that was okay; I wasn’t working much, so I had time on my hands. I also didn’t expect much in terms of my own ability; I figured I’d just flail along and that would be fine.
What first grabbed me about blogging was the tight-knit mental health community. I got a lot of meaning and fulfillment out of that, which was great, but I still felt like the nitty gritty of blogging was something I was muddling my way through and picking things up as I went along.
If I had even considered whether or not I was competent, I probably would have thought “average”, accompanied by a mental shrug, and not thought about it any further.
There was no great aha moment when I realized wait a minute, I actually do know what I’m doing. It took a while before I was even open to considering that yes, it was possible that I could be good at something again.
The first glimmerings of realization came when I started posting blogging tips without having to do any research for them. I was no longer having to use my various cheat sheets I had created to make sense of everything. Other bloggers seemed to respect my opinions not only about mental health, but also about blogging.
Even though the signs were clearly there that I had reached a point where I knew my stuff, there was still some internal resistance to overcome before I was mentally open to that. I had started from a bad place, where I felt like a failure who was too sick, too wasted, and to broken to be of much good to anyone, anywhere, anyhow.
We all tend to be remarkably nonobjective in evaluating ourselves. I’m sure my fellow bloggers would have deemed me competent long before I did. However, they were starting from a blank slate in determining my skills, and I brought along a hefty load of baggage. What had been done to me in the past determined what I thought I could do in the present.
The conscious competence model of learning breaks down skill acquisition into four stages, and it looks like I probably skipped a step in my awareness.
In unconscious incompetence (ignorance), you don’t know how to do a task and don’t realize what you don’t know. This is where I began my blogging journey.
In conscious incompetence (awareness), you still don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re able to realize what you don’t know. It took a few months for me to move on to this stage, and this is where I’d anticipated that I would remain stuck.
In conscious competence (learning), you have the skills to do the task, but you need to consciously think about them to apply them. As I moved through this stage, the conscious part of it really wasn’t there yet.
Unconscious competence (mastery) involves knowing what you’re doing at a deep enough level that you don’t even need to think about it. It wasn’t until I had settled into this level that it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t muddling around in incompetence.
Arriving at a place of mastery hasn’t meant I’ve stopped learning. If anything, it’s only increased my desire to know more and continue to improve.
There are still areas of my life where I feel very much less than, like I will never be good enough. Perhaps, though, I can draw on this example as a reminder that I am capable of learning new things and building mastery.
Having that knowledge is just as valuable as the competence itself.
And who knows what could be next.