Mastery and The Four stages of competence

The learning of any skill is complex and somewhat mysterious process but the Four Stages of Competence outlines the psychological stages the journey from incompetence to mastery takes.

They go as follows:

  • Unconscious incompetence. This is the initial stage where we are doing something wrong, but we don’t know we are doing it wrong. We lack the necessary awareness to progress further.
  • Conscious incompetence. This stage is we are still doing it wrong, but now we know we are doing it wrong.
  • Conscious competence. Here skill has developed and now we’re doing it right and we know we’re doing it right
  • Unconscious competence. The is the final stage where we know we’re doing it right and we don’t even notice we are.

What can be said about these stages?

Although it’s a neat description of the stages, I wonder how it can be of practical use. Where are we in this process, and by asking the question, are we distracting ourselves from developing said skill?

However, some things can be picked up upon that can help us in learning new skills.

Moving from 1 to 2 is where awareness steps in

Here is where bad ideas and behaviours get brought into focus and examined. Awareness makes us better at the skill, but knowing we need to improve is the foundation for any change. Before we can change or solve a problem, we need to know and accept that something is wrong.

From 2 to 3 is the place of deliberate practice

Here’s where the work really happens, where you try and sustain new habits by practicing them. It’s hard work because you have to be aware and there’s always the tendency to regress back into old habits, in distraction and the safety of the familiar.

Then at 3 to 4 awareness steps back out of the picture

With all that diligent practice, the new behaviours are becoming second nature. New neural pathways get laid down so that the behaviours no longer need to be conscious. We can now do the work without thinking about it; this allows us to focus on further developing another skill or a more nuanced understanding of the same skill.

The final stage is Mastery of the particular skill. Like learning how to drive you no longer really pay much attention to what you are doing, you just do it. Just like Muscle memory, it’s rained reflex and so requires less cognitive effort.

In practical terms these stages are of course not clear cut, because nothing ever is, and because progression towards a goal in never simple or linear. Progress, in reality, is not so simple as this model suggests which is why I doubt it’s usefulness. Becoming a master involves setbacks, times when you feel stuck or have plateaued. The whole process is sort of messy.

What this template shows is that:

In order to do better at something it requires we alter our perceptions and ideas… ..which in turn helps you practice better… …which in turn helps you study better… that helps you change your mind.

It’s a reciprocal relationship, an intertwining of mind and body, study and practice, awareness and behaviour. Which make progress and eventual mastery possible.

The lesson here is that there is no ‘silver bullet’ and no secret to getting better. It’s also about diligence and discipline. Where you get your head down, learn the theory and then practice in a practical setting. You keep practising until those skills become a part of you, where they become what the Chinese call Wu Wei or Effortless Action.

Image Credit : pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

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