Unconscious Incompetence

and the Four Stages of Learning


A good friend once explained to me that there are four stages to learning a new skill:

  1. Unconscious incompetence — when you’re doing something wrong and you don’t know you’re doing it wrong
  2. Conscious incompetence — when you’re doing something wrong but you know you’re doing it wrong
  3. Conscious competence — when you’re doing something right but you have to consciously focus on doing it the right way
  4. Unconscious competence — when you’re doing something right and you don’t even have to think about it

Most of the skill-based tasks we do, we do badly and we don’t even think about it. Our default state is #1: unconscious incompetence.

Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that you’re probably brushing your teeth wrong?

Most of us brush our teeth the way our parents taught us when we were young. We’ve done it so many times that it’s become second nature.

But studies show that 90% of people make at least one toothbrushing mistake without being aware of it: either they use the wrong toothbrush, don’t brush long enough, brush too hard, start in the same place each time, don’t dry the toothbrush between uses, or don’t replace their toothbrush often enough.

Did you just realize that you made one of those mistakes? If so, congratulations. You’ve moved on to #2: conscious incompetence.

I recently realized that for 25 years I’ve been only brushing the flat parts of my teeth. Thanks a lot, mom and dad.

But I’m not a dentist, and this isn’t a post about dental hygiene.

Yoga

When I first started doing yoga, I had no idea what I was doing. (I did it for a girl). I thought that yoga was about how much energy you can exert holding a pose, and how flexible you are.

On a whim, I decided I wanted to become a yoga instructor. (Again, for a girl.)

In our first class, our teacher told us that we were making at least some minor or major mistake in each pose without even realizing it.

One by one, he showed each of us how to keep our arms back and down to take the weight off our shoulders. He showed us how to open our hips further in many of the poses. And most importantly, keeping our breath smooth and controlled.


I immediately became hyper-aware of what my body was doing in each pose. Because there were so many new things to work on improving, I couldn’t keep it all in my head at once. I had to make one little adjustment at a time until it felt natural — like building blocks of a house.


That’s what it means to be conscious of your incompetence. This is the most frustrating stage of learning any new skill — because you’re painfully aware of the gap between where your abilities are and where you’d like them to be.

It’s also where people often give up. The realization that you’re doing something badly, and the frustration of trying so hard and still not getting it right, sometimes that’s enough to make us give up entirely.


Ira Glass has a great video about creativity and the gap between our taste and our work:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase.”

(photo credit: Stuart Mullenberg)


If you’ve been following along so far looking for that magical answer for how to get from conscious incompetence (#2) to conscious competence (#3) then here’s where you’re bound to get disappointed. There’s no easy way to get good at something (but you knew that anyway).

Ira says that the most important thing is that you do a lot of work. He offers tips like putting yourself on deadlines (thanks Ira). This is where Malcolm Gladwell’s infamous “10,000-hour rule” comes in. (Gladwell claims that the key to success in any field is simply a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.)

In reality, it takes way less than 10,000 hours before you start to feel like you are doing at least some things right.

Conscious competence can be one of the most rewarding stages of learning a new skill because you can start getting more positive feedback and a sense of mastery as time goes on.

About three months into practicing yoga, I started getting the sense that I was doing my poses right (for the most part). I no longer had to constantly correct myself. Instead, I was able to focus on my breathing and not get exhausted. I also fell less often.

We’ve all felt this way before, though we often forget. Try to remember what it was like when you first learned how to walk. One day you just stopped falling.

Finally, unconscious competence.

Unconscious competence is what most of us aspire to when when we first start learning a new skill. Some people think of this as true ‘mastery.’ We want to be able to do things right without having it consume all of our mental energy.

Fortunately, the human body develops habits (both good and bad) fairly quickly. If you continue to do something the same way over and over again, the behavior requires less conscious effort each time.

At some point you don’t have to think about it anymore. You’ll notice that while doing an activity that used to take a lot of effort, your mind suddenly starts slipping into other, totally unrelated thoughts. You think about your day, or a conversation you had with a friend earlier, and your body continues to move automatically because it just knows what to do.

In yoga, this is the point where you realize that your practice stops being so physical and starts being mental. The challenging part becomes: Can you clear your mind while your body is moving through a repeated set of steps, like a physical mantra?

Throughout our lives, we reach some level of unconscious competence in many things. For most things, we don’t really need to get anywhere close to perfection, so we learn to do things well enough for us to stop thinking about them.

It’s not necessarily bad to be complacent about things — in fact it’s necessary sometimes. You can’t be consciously focused on improving everything, because then you won’t get better at anything. It’s just too much.

But it’s worth recognizing that every one of us is constantly making decisions (both consciously and unconsciously) about what we care about getting better at.

I urge you to think about what things you’re consciously trying to improve, and what things you’ve become complacent about.

I’ve decided I want to get better at writing, so I’m writing 750 words a day every day. I’m also getting better at brushing my teeth. I don’t do yoga anymore.

What have you chosen?

Thanks to Cody Brown, Chris Castiglione, Jake Heller, Nikhil Nirmel, Cloe Shasha, and Mathias Vestergaard for reading drafts of this.