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Four Stages of Competence: How We Learn New Skills

Would you be able to fly a plane without any training? I tried recently. Well, I took an introductory flight lesson. It’s amazing what they let you do. After a short induction, I was given control of the stick, pushed the throttle forward and steered our propeller plane into the sky. “Wow, flying is easy,” the intuitive part of my brain cheered. Until my inner analyst chimed in: “…and dangerously so.” The Four Stages of Competence are akin to this kind of inner conflict between the two parts of our brains, the intuitive and the analytical one. It’s a back and forth we undergo whenever we acquire a new skill from scratch. Which part of our brain will win?

The Four Stages of Competence

The origins of the learning model can be traced back to the 1960s. Back then, management coach Martin M. Broadwell used it to describe different levels of teaching. Often portrayed as a hierarchy, Broadwell’s description of four teachers who practice at varying levels of skill has since been adapted to apply to competence more broadly.

We can define competence as the ability to perform a task successfully. We’re competent if whatever we want to do has the expected outcome or if whatever we produce actually works. As opposed to The Mind Collection Model, a typology of knowledge and the lack thereof, the Four Stages of Competence describe different psychological states we experience when we learn how to do something successfully.

Let’s see how the four stages would play out in the initial plane scenario. Our plane’s pilot has just passed out. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. But someone has to take over the stick. And I’m afraid it has to be us.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence (Ignorance)

How hard can it be? It’ll be fine.

The first of the four stages of competence is a state of unconscious incompetence. We have no idea how to do something. Most likely, we’re not even aware of all the things we don’t know. This can be due to ignorance, willful blindness or naivete. In the worst-case scenario, we don’t believe that the skill in question is even a real skill and therefore doesn’t have to be learned. We probably take a lot of mental shortcuts but our intuition is ultimately wrong. Frankly, in this condition, we’re of no help to anyone.

Suppose we’re starting at this stage in our hypothetical plane scenario. We’re very familiar with planes as we’ve enjoyed flying business class for years. But now the life of a few dozen people is in our hands. Unfortunately, in the state of unconscious incompetence extreme confidence is paired with total cluelessness. Air traffic control is mortified by our unwillingness to recognise our need to learn.

Granted, you’d have to be pretty removed from reality to think that flying a plane isn’t that big of a deal. But if we’re really honest to ourselves, there are a few activities in which we’re unconsciously incompetent. Acting? Driving a truck? Teaching? What’s there to know and learn anyway? It seems like, if there’s no immediate need to discover our own ignorance, this stage can last forever or end quickly. At any rate, once we progress we reach the stage of awareness.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence (Awareness)

Crikey, I have no idea what I’m doing. I better get learning.

At the stage of conscious incompetence we become aware of our ignorance. Coming to terms with what we don’t know is a significant step to starting the learning process. Mind you, we still have no idea what we’re doing. But the analytical part of our brain has taken over and is aware of our lack of skill. At least we’re beginning to recognise our deficit and are willing to improve. Maybe by asking the right questions.

Sitting in the pilot’s seat it dawns on us how little to nothing we actually know about aerodynamics and avionics. Does the plane go up or down when we pull on the stick? What’s with all the flashy digits on the screens? How fast do we have to go so as to not drop out of the sky? Is there a too fast? We’ve woken up from the slumber of ignorance. Air traffic control is relieved.

We’re now at the point where we know what we don’t know. We have a more realistic idea of our own limitations. At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate the realisation that something can in fact be learned. Imagined unattainability can be a powerful deterrent from progressing to stage three. Still, bear in mind we haven’t acquired any new skills at this point. This happens at the stage of conscious competence.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence (Learning)

Wow, I actually know what I’m doing.

Conscious competence is the third of the Four Stages of Competence. We’ve finally learned something new. Now we actually understand what we’re doing and can explain how and why something works. We analyse the situation we’re in and our analysis is correct. How did we get here? Through practice and experience. Consciously competent learners tend to function well as long as they can concentrate on the task at hand.

Being in a conscious state of learning is certainly good news in the plane flying scenario. We’re getting a hang of holding the plane steady at altitude. We’ve learned from a few mistakes that luckily weren’t fatal. We know our current position and how to navigate to the next airport. We’re at the stage where we could teach others, too. For example how to keep an eye on the altitude. That would allow us to concentrate on something else. With a bit of luck, we might even learn how to land this thing again. Thanks to the patient people at air traffic control.

Obviously, this is a very useful stage to be in. It’s where most of the work happens. But it’s also where all of our growth comes from. Since they know what they’re doing and why they do it, consciously competent people make good teachers. The Feynman Technique, a learning method that promotes learning through teaching, is built on the very idea that conscious competence and the ability to teach are closely intertwined.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence (Mastery)

I don’t know, I just do it.

The final stage of our competence hierarchy is the psychological state of unconscious competence. As opposed to our dangerously wrong intuition at stage one, our intuition is now 100% correct. There are many expressions for this state of mastery. We act from muscle memory. We’re in the zone. We’re Zen, as philosopher Alan Watts would describe it. Due to extensive practice and experience, we don’t need to think about what we’re doing anymore. We just do it.

Now, there’s no chance we will reach this stage while heroically rescuing our fellow passengers. We’ve barely made it back to the airport with the conscious competence we acquired mid-air. But fast forward five years later, flying has become second nature. It’s like driving a car. There’s only one downside. How are we supposed to teach others how to fly if we don’t know how and why we do what we do?

Once we’ve achieved a high level of expertise, we run the risk of forgetting what it was like to learn something from scratch. We’re cursed with knowledge so to speak. That isn’t to say that mastery isn’t a beautiful thing. Of course not. As Robert Greene describes in The Daily Laws, once you’ve reached this level, “it’s almost as if […] the project is living inside of you.” It’s become a part of our authentic self.

But what’s left then? I guess we naturally push our skills to the next limit in order to discover new fields for growth. Perhaps we could apply for a job as an air traffic controller. And get a flight instructor licence. Just in case.

Closing Thoughts

I wouldn’t think of the four stages of competence as linear or monolithic. There is a myriad of domains and skills within any given field of expertise. We seem to be moving back and forth between the stages as we discover our blind spots. Sometimes we may even be simultaneously ignorant about one aspect of a skill while having mastered another. Which brings us back to our initial question: Would you be able to fly a plane without any training?

It seems like the answer highly depends on how fast the analytical part of your brain can take over. How quickly you can progress to a state of conscious competence in which you actually start to acquire the skills you need for the job. But perhaps we shouldn’t think of it as a competition between two halves of our brains either. The faster the intuitive part of our brains and the analytical half make peace the better.