Learning a New Skill 202—I Knew I Could!

IMG_6666Our last class session on the learning process! To review, we’ve discussed the first three stages of the learning process—unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, and conscious competence.

The final stage in the learning process is unconscious competence and, no, that doesn’t mean you’ve gotten so good that you pass out from joy!

Unconscious competence comes from learning something well enough that it becomes second nature to you; you’ve gotten to the point where you can engage in the behavior and actually let your mind wander, you can let the fierce concentration go.

Interestingly, while you don’t have to think so much about completing the task, you’ll find you can also think MORE, about how to improve or improvise, to be creative and make the task your own. Sometimes, I’ll hear American football quarterbacks talking about how, at some point in their development, the game “slows down” for them. Of course, it doesn’t really. But they have reached the stage of unconscious competence, where everything seems easier and it all flows smoothly and they are calm and can think through their next move.

Think of learning to ride a bike (but only if you know how to ride one!) When you first learned, you had to really think about balancing and pedaling and pointing the bike in the right direction. You might have panicked if you began to lose balance or a dog ran nearby.

At some point, you probably got to the point where you could just jump on the bike and go and it became so easy you could start to work on riding with no hands or popping wheelies—the game had slowed down for you.

In fact, I think that when we reach the stage of unconscious competence, we’re at the point where we have so internalized the skill that we can go back, years later, and pick the skill up again—and it comes back to us, “just like riding a bike.”

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the stage of unconscious incompetence in what we do because, as we reach it, we also set our goals higher and then have to concentrate again. So, as I got better and better at tempering chocolate and could dip candies in it without drama and angst, I then wanted to try harder candy-making skills and put myself right back at the conscious incompetence stage. Someday, maybe I’ll tell you about the chocolate-covered cherry cordials. Or maybe not.

I never reached anything approaching the unconscious competence stage with skating. God knows I wanted to but it wasn’t to be.

Sometimes we fail to reach the stage of unconscious competence, not because the task is hard and beyond our ability, but because we don’t care enough to. Most of my public speaking students were perfectly happy to be at the conscious competence stage and were unlikely to move beyond it unless they found lots of places to practice their new-found skills. At the end of the semester, I would urge them to take an upper-level course or to seek out opportunities to give speeches. They clearly thought these ideas were laughable!

I, on the other hand, haven’t given a public presentation in three years, since I retired. But, since I followed the principles I taught my students and had achieved a state of unconscious competence with the whole basic process, I have no doubt it would all come back to me, just like riding a bike!

In what skills have you achieved the stage of unconscious competence? Doesn’t it feel good?!

So, to review for the exam:

There are 4 stages of learning a new process.

When my husband and I saw the big loom at a garage sale, at a great price, we said, “Weaving will be easy! Let’s buy it!” UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE (big time!).

When we opened the book that came with the loom, and tried to make sense of reading it, we experienced the dawning of CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE and the realization that we had no business owning a loom.

Since we took a basic weaving class and progressed to a loom class, every session has become a baby step toward CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE. By concentrating and getting good instruction, we are managing to weave. But it comes at a price—hard work, frustration, shoulder and neck muscles that may never relax. And, in every session, higher-level skills are hinted at that sound very daunting and scary right about now!

Will we ever reach UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE? That remains to be seen. Right now, we’re still hopeful and enthusiastic but it won’t come fast.

That’s it! You’ve been a lovely class. When you’re getting frustrated by learning a new skill, remember that you’re not alone and remember that all learning is a process, and will take time and perseverance! Enjoy the process!


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International

Learning a New Skill 201—I Think I Can . . .

IMG_6662Good morning, class. We’ve been discussing the learning process* that each of us goes through when we attempt a new skill. To review, we’ve discussed the first two stages of the learning process—unconscious incompetence and conscious incompetence. The third stage of the learning process is that of “conscious competence.” This is an exhilarating yet often still frustrating stage.

It’s exciting because you realize, hey, I can do this! It’s frustrating because you do it but not easily and certainly not with any aplomb. In fact, even though you are successful once, doesn’t mean you will be the next time you try. And, still, the hint of success may be intoxicating enough to keep you plugging along!

When I was in early stages of candy making, and I realized that, when all the stars were aligned I could actually do it, I took notes on everything. I made notes ahead of time about every step so I didn’t forget any. I made notes after about temperature and humidity and tried to count and systematize everything, in order to be able to do it again. There was nothing relaxing or even fun about it, except I could see I was improving, usually. Some days, though, were a giant step back.

To be fair to myself, even in skating, I did get to the point of conscious competence with some little bitty aspects of it. I didn’t remain paralyzed. I could make it around the rink, I could even skate backwards a little and, perhaps most importantly, I could stop before I ran over small children.

But I could never do any of it without intense concentration. I wanted to fly across the ice, hair streaming and a big smile, but instead I always had a pained expression on my face.

I watched my students experience the joy of giving a really good speech, knowing the satisfaction of nailing it and then, the next time, foundering because they lost focus or got a little cocky and didn’t rehearse as much, or because a mistake threw them off and they couldn’t find their place.

The joy of competence, the agony of having to THINK about it so much.

Some people stall at this stage of development because, although they are becoming competent at a skill, it simply is not any fun. The whole process is still demanding, outcomes are uncertain, teachers start pushing harder—is it worth it?

And, of course, it’s okay to decide something is not worth the time and energy—we don’t have to become expert at every single thing we do. I apologize to all the crocheters out there but, once I got to the conscious competence stage, I realized that crocheting simply didn’t move me. I didn’t care if I ever got better so, guess what, I never did!

On the other hand, in order to stick with the learning process, and power through the hopeful-yet-frustrating stage of conscious competence, it helps a lot to focus on areas of improvement. Since most skills are made up of multiple elements, consciously remind yourself of which elements you’re mastering.

I had a student once, all in all a very good public speaker. She wanted to become very good and, because she wanted it so much, she and I set very high goals. For a while, she really struggled and got discouraged, looking at all the mistakes she was making. Then one day, she said to me, “Tell me what I’m doing right.”

That moment became a breakthrough for her and also, significantly, for me, as a teacher. There was so much she was doing really well! Once she realized how far she had come, she had new confidence and resolve in her ability to continue to improve.

When you’re getting discouraged, step back and tell yourself what you’re doing right!

Are you currently at the stage of “conscious competence” in learning a new skill? What are you getting better at? (Let’s not always see the same hands, please!)

Will you keep at it until you reach the next stage?


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International

Learning a New Skill 102—Can I?

scrabble stage 2Good morning class! Last time, we talked about the learning process* and found that there are four stages, the first of which is “unconscious incompetence.” If you weren’t here for the last class, you might to review the notes from that session.

The next stage, “conscious incompetence,” comes when you decide you want to learn this new skill, get started on it, and hit the “Holy moley, this is HARD” stage. At this stage you know what you don’t know.

When chocolate is on the ceiling and your candy looks like it belongs in the cat’s litter box.

When you put on skates and get on the ice and are paralyzed. Simply cannot move at all.

When you get in front of an audience, having glibly thought you’d just say whatever came to mind, and absolutely nothing comes to mind.

This is the comeuppance stage, where it becomes all too painfully, soul-crushingly clear just how bad you are at something. You learn that what you are undertaking is hard, often really hard, and that you are not a prodigy.

The stage of conscious incompetence is probably the critical stage, where the die is cast, regarding whether you learn your new skill or give up on it.

The first time I tempered chocolate, and tried to do something with it, was an undeniable disaster. I was tense, it took longer than I thought it should, I was overcome by self-doubt. But, eventually, I got good at it.

I took skating lessons for a couple years, from a good skater who was also a very good teacher. I learned immediately just how incredibly bad I was going to be and how hard it was. I never really learned, despite two years of trying.

Some of my students, over the course of one semester, became very competent and confident speakers. They could speak, in an engaging manner, for 10 minutes, with minimal notes and have fun doing it. Other students ended the semester, in some ways, in worse shape than they began.

So, what makes the difference whether one moves beyond the conscious incompetence stage?

It seems to me there are several factors:

One of these is your level of confidence in your ability to be good at something. With the candy making, I was just sure it would come to me in the end. I’m a good baker, I’d made other difficult candy, like caramels, and I assumed I would become the goddess of all things chocolate!

The skating was another matter. I’m one who has always thought of myself as simply not athletic. I was late to learning to skip and to jump rope. I can’t do a cartwheel. I never played a sport. So, when I struggled to learn to skate, my message to myself was, “You’re never going to be able to do this. Why try?” And, yes, I do know the concept of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, these attitudes affected my students, too. Those who were performers in another arenas often had more confidence in their ability to be good speakers (and were occasionally over-confident, which got in the way of their learning, too). If they weren’t great in the first speech, they picked themselves up and dusted themselves off and prepared to improve. Other students labeled themselves as shy or had had a bad experience in a church recital or something in the distant past. They were way more likely to struggle to make progress. Still others, as I mentioned, didn’t see the value of the undertaking so didn’t try at all.

A second factor of success in getting beyond the conscious incompetence stage is how complicated and multi-faceted the new skill is. Do you already know how to do some pieces of the process or is everything entirely new? How many different and new mini-tasks need to be mastered in order to master the whole?

Learning something entirely new, as an adult, is really difficult. The easier and simpler the process, the more likely we are to be successful. When all is said and done, candy making isn’t really all that hard.

Skating on the other hand—oy! It had to do with overall fitness, with posture, with the stroke of the blade, with a willingness to go fast (eek!), with holding your arms in correct positions—so many things to remember and to coordinate and none of them were natural to me.

My student speakers felt the same way—so much to remember! The speech needed an introduction, which should accomplish 5 purposes, a body, with three main points, a conclusion that needed to do three things to be effective. They were supposed to meet a strict time limit, make eye contact, quote outside sources, and sound natural and conversational while doing all this! I taught it and it even sounds daunting to me! I think the harder a task and the longer it takes to master it, the less likely people are to persevere—they have to be very highly motivated.

So, the third factor in moving beyond the stage of conscious incompetence is how much you value what you’re trying to learn. Are you really, really committed to learning? If learning a new skill will improve your life, make you happier, earn you more money, help you achieve other important goals, you’re more likely to persevere and work really hard and keep going even when things get rough.

Candy-making, as I said, wasn’t that hard so perseverance wasn’t an issue. Besides, even the candy that didn’t look pretty still tasted like chocolate and caramels so persevering had benefits!

I guess, when all was said and done, skating didn’t mean enough to me. I moved away from my teacher and my college’s lovely rink. After two years, I still couldn’t do a reliable front crossover without hyperventilating. I didn’t have anyone to go skating with. It just wasn’t worth the effort anymore.

As far as my former students are concerned, I sometimes wonder about the ones who didn’t value learning to give a decent speech because they didn’t think they were ever going to need it. I bet many of them later wished they’d paid more attention in class or went out and took a refresher course, when they found just how much of their adult success depended on their ability to express themselves reasonably well in a public setting.

When attitude and perseverance and hard work all come together, most people who are really committed to learning a skill will reach the third stage of learning, that of conscious competence.

Are there skills, right now, where you’d say you are at the conscious incompetence stage? Your homework is to share, in the comments, an area of conscious incompetence (you know that you DON’T know how to do something but you’re starting to try to learn) with the rest of the class.

See you in class on Monday–have a great weekend!


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International


Learning a New Skill 101: Do I Need To?

--photo by Aaron Harmon

photo by Aaron Harmon

You make things. So you certainly have had the experience of learning a new craft or skill and experiencing complete frustration—we’re talking swear-out-loud, fling-tools-to-the-floor frustration. You may even have been tempted to quit.

We see people around us knitting like the wind, or laying down a perfect row of hand-quilting stitches, or baking the perfect piecrust, and we get discouraged by our ineptitude. We tell ourselves that we aren’t talented, we’re too clumsy, we’re all thumbs.

I’m in the process of learning something entirely new for the first time in a long while! I’m learning to weave. The slowness and awkwardness of the work has reminded me of the bumps along the road to learning a new skill and of a theory I learned a long time ago, which helped me to reassure myself that this very frustrating, “all thumbs” stage is temporary.

I’m hoping that, as you read through these stages, you can apply them to your own experience and get some insight to ways they apply.

So, I’m going to get all teacherly on you and take you through the four stages of the learning process.* Because I know long, wordy blogs get cumbersome and you’re a busy person, I’m going to break my thoughts up over four “class periods” and provide lots of examples so maybe you’ll be able relate this to your own experience and, then, share your own examples with the class.

I hope you’ll read along, even if you already are familiar with these ideas—I know it has helped me, with my weaving experience, to refresh my mind on this subject.

Unconscious incompetence—You don’t know what you don’t know

The first stage of the learning process is called unconscious incompetence. At this stage we are blissfully ignorant of our inability to do something and, because experts make it look easy, we might assume it’ll be easy for us, too. Alternatively, at the unconscious incompetence stage, a person might even deny that the skill in question has any value or is worth learning.

When I was a kid I read a book about Thomas Edison who, as a young person himself, experimented with electricity, which led to great things. Well, I had a lamp in my bedroom that didn’t work. So I got a screwdriver and figured, if Thomas Edison could do it, so could I. I stuck that screwdriver into the workings of that lamp and fried the fuses in our house. If I hadn’t been holding onto the plastic grip, I might not be writing to you today! Unconscious incompetent.

When I started making candy, I figured that, since I could read instructions and I had a good set of instructions, it would be no problem to learn to temper chocolate and dip candy in it. Unconscious incompetent.

When I wanted to learn to ice skate, I figured that, if other people could manage double axels and skating backwards, I could certainly manage to simply skate around a rink without incident. Unconscious incompetent.

When my college students signed up for their course in public speaking, many assumed that, because they had been talking their whole lives, they’d instantly be good at public speaking. Others felt quite confident that they would never, ever put themselves in a position to have to give a speech and couldn’t see why they should have to take the course. Unconscious incompetents, one and all.

Well. Weren’t we all ignorant and weren’t we just blissful in that state?

I soon learned that I couldn’t do any of those things I thought I would be able to. Both dipping chocolates and skating were a lot harder than they looked and I was a lot more awkward than I could ever have imagined. I had moved, already, into the stage of conscious incompetence. We’ll talk abut that stage soon!

It’s hard for me to ask you to think about your areas of unconscious incompetence—how would you know if you don’t know, right? But maybe, upon reflection, you can remember a time when it suddenly dawned on you that you really didn’t have a clue what you were doing.

Be sure to attend class tomorrow—there will be homework!


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International

Spring? Bring It On!

IMG_6643Here in upstate New York, it’s far too early to do any planting of annual flowers but the garden centers are beginning to tempt and seduce us with spring glories!

For now, the flaming orange blossoms and rich green foliage of this trailing begonia glow indoors, in the afternoon sun. It anticipates, as do we, the days when we can move outdoors for the spring and summer, to enjoy the filtered sun and shade under the pergola.



Little Bitty Pretty Ones: Vintage Risque Towels

These vintage towels are not only pretty, they’re a little sexy!

Often labeled as “risqué” towels, these fun vintage linens were popular in the 1940s and were placed in guest bathrooms.

When I saw these first I thought they were made by those loving hands at home and just reveled in the image of proper 1940s housewives having a little fun by making these and feeling a little scandalous.

I have since seen many of the towels, and cocktail napkins with similar designs, with original labels and price tags and know that, while they were made completely by hand, they were made by experts, probably as part of the Madeira linen tradition, which was begun on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 1860s. Madeira linens are known for exquisite quality of materials and handwork.

So, I had to re-vamp my mental image, from women making these and feeling scandalous to, instead, spending their egg money on them and feeling scandalous. Not much of a difference when it comes right down to it!

To me, in the 21st-century, when our ideas have changed about what defines titillating, these towels are a charming reminder that a sense of humor and a love for a little fun know no era. I display them in my guest bathroom, as my foremothers might have, and smile every time I see them!

What Ever Happened to IBMTD??

mop lady

What does she have to smile about?!

Do you remember me setting a goal for myself? Something to do with the letters IBMTD?

You’re forgiven if you didn’t remember because it’s been one heck of a long time since I’ve mentioned it. And, if you did remember, you’re forgiven for thinking I might be just another big talker with New Year resolutions that went “poof” after a couple of months.

I was going to tell you all about the things I’ve Been Meaning to Do, and how I’d done them.

The fact of the matter is I still have things I’ve been meaning to do but I figure you don’t want to read blog posts on topics like, “I’ve been meaning to wash the kitchen floor,” “I’ve been meaning to call my mother,” and “I’ve been meaning to get outside and exercise my sorry butt.”

Life is a little busy and a little overwhelming right now. The clock is ticking on the deadline for that quilt I’d been meaning to make. The weaving class I’d been meaning to take has ended and turned into a new class, meeting twice as often. And I signed up for another chance to sell my candy in a face-to-face setting, at a Mothers’ Day holiday boutique in a couple of weeks.

It’s not all work and no play, of course (and, of course, even the work is play in its own right!) I went to a pancake breakfast. We’re getting caught up with friends who finally saw fit to come back north from Florida. I go out to lunch with my sweet husband regularly and often make room for a beer! I stop by here to talk and listen to you, my stress relievers.

Someday I’ll get back to new adventures and, when I do, you’ll be the first to know! In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to wash that kitchen floor . . . .

Spring Tradition: The Pancake Breakfast

IMG_6492In my continuing celebration of spring and all things maple, we spent yesterday morning at a very special place—a pancake breakfast!

My cousins own and operate a sugarhouse that has been going strong for three generations. For 44 (!) springs, they have worked with the local square dance club to host an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is a tradition for people all over the North Country.

IMG_6488 When we arrive, the rural road is lined with cars and trucks, and folks of all ages are streaming toward the sugarhouse and the smell of pancakes. IMG_6538

We pass by an avenue of ancient maples wearing their battered sap buckets; I like the contrast of this symbol of spring and rebirth and newness contrasted with the cemetery beyond.

IMG_6488 - Version 2 IMG_6481It’s cold and rainy outside but the inside of the sugarhouse is warm and steamy and noisy. We greet family members and neighbors get caught up with neighbors.

IMG_6490The evaporator dominates the scene inside—this is where the syrup is made. The process needs attending to, hence the rockers, to provide the tenders with comfort and companionship.

IMG_6496 IMG_6493A huge mural by the family artist honors the way the sap was traditionally collected.IMG_6501

Today, though, it’s all about the food.

Pancakes and sausages are really only a vehicle for maple syrup.

IMG_6514Young runners keep the pancakes coming.

IMG_6507Almost no one leaves without getting some syrup or maple sugar or maple butter to take home.

IMG_6519The sugarhouse also serves as a museum of sorts, with lovely old artifacts of the history of sugaring down.

This fragment of an old maple shows signs of having been tapped many times over many, many years.IMG_6525

We eat our pancakes, we visit with relatives, we commiserate about the winter, we welcome spring.

The pancake breakfast is over and we immediately begin to look forward to next year!



The Ugly Duckling Season

IMG_1403You know how every young person goes through an awkward stage? Not an adorable child any longer but not quite grown into the beauty she or he will become? You remember the heart-stopping beauty that was and you believe in the miracle that will bring the loveliness to come and yet every time you look, and you see the teeth that are too big for the face and the acne, you have to wonder a little?

That’s what our weather is like right now. The rest of the northern hemisphere seems to have sprung into springdom in all its glory, but here, in the North Country of upstate New York, we’re at the awkward stage.

The snow is melting into huge ponds on front yards but then freezes into perfect ice rinks over night.

IMG_1389Dead leaves and flower stalks from last year are stuck in the ice and hint of life but it’s only the merest whisper of a hint.

IMG_1396 IMG_1383The sand left by road crews all winter is drifting and, on windy days, taking a walk feels like going through a sandblaster.

IMG_1373We have spots where bare ground is showing but also have lots of filthy snow and a lake that refuses to melt.

IMG_1387 IMG_1374Where there’s ice at night, there will be mud all day.

IMG_1395 IMG_1394But no one is really complaining. Transitions are awkward and sometimes unlovely, whether in children or seasons, but they are also exciting and full of promise.

And one morning, we’ll wake up and without noticing exactly when it happened, the ugly duckling will have become a swan.

IMG_1406 IMG_3258