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

33 thoughts on “Learning a New Skill 101: Do I Need To?

  1. And here I thought ignorance was bliss…that lamp fixing episode could have been deadly! I was in that unconscious incompetence stage when I was 16 and learning to drive. Just get in the car, turn the key and go, right? After a few scary attempts, my father gave up on me and sent me to a professional driving school.

    • Seems like a lot of drivers never get past the unconscious incompetence stage! And that can be as dangerous as sticking a screwdriver into a lamp–I got quite a talking to . . .

  2. Skiing was my unconscious-incompetent experiment.

    I was 18, so I was still flexible enough to bounce. Good thing, too, because one of my braking
    techniques involved seeing if the sapling would blink first. Ouch.

    Nothing broken, though, and memories to last a lifetime!

    • Did you ever get beyond that first stage?! Weirdly, skiing, at a pretty basic level, was one sport I actually could do fairly well. But, that was then–I’m sure it would leave me sore and broken if I went back to it now!

      • Like many other things in my life, I never learned the “correct” way to ski, but I became pretty good at it. I never took a lesson; I just went out there and used common sense to keep myself vertical, make turns, and come to a stop. The way I saw it was, if it works, then why should I take any lessons? Who says MY way isn’t the right way? (Of course, I realize there were probably many things I was doing the hard way as a result.)

        I could say all this about my ice skating, playing bluegrass fiddle, snowmobiling, playing golf, painting with oils–and even becoming a SME in English. But if you have enough passion to keep getting up onto the horse–while continuing to pursue learning–then eventually it will bring at least some satisfaction.

        • I lean toward this self-taught method, even though I can point to skills I ultimately learned more effectively with a teacher. I think I’m just anti-social! The fiddle is one skill I’d love to learn. Have you heard of the bluegrass band the Gibson Brothers?

  3. The first time I knit a sweater, I made the neck too tight and I could not pull it over my head, common mistake for beginners, luckily it was easy to correct the problem 🙂

  4. I often start new things–sometimes I stick with them; other times I don’t. I think that I have difficulty getting past the Conscience Incompetence stage.

    • Ha! That’s a great example–I remember learning to drive a stick shift–the guy trying to teach me said he could give me two tips that would make it so simple. Did you ever learn? I did and now it is absolutely second nature.

      • I tried valiantly but, in the end, gave up. Actually I didn’t give up so much as my back gave out and that affected my leg and my ability to manipulate the clutch. Went the automatic way.

      • I think one of my brothers suggested that I should learn this when I was learning to drive and my dad gently told me that it might be a good idea for me to learn both systems. I took one look at the pedals and the complicated stick that looked like it belonged to a jet fighter and most emphatically said I would only learn the automatic transmission (conscious incompetence for sure!) – fast forward about 20 years and my dear, dear hubby wants me to learn, so that I could take his Honda if the time came for him to get a newer car. I raised the brow and told him “Sure, honey, if you want me to grind out all the gears while I’m struggling with the stick in a blind panic …” He never mentioned it again.

        • Funny! And, you know, once you learn, you never want to turn back, unless, as Gallivanta said, it simply hurts to use the clutch. I have been holding on to my old Honda CRV for 12 years because I love it and they don’t make them with standard shift anymore.

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  6. This reminded me of childhood experiences. My family certainly put up with a lot of “learning” episodes. I learned to sew, crochet, and knit because Sesame Street and Muppets were new items that I wanted to figure out how to make. One year I read Robinson Coruso, then went into the back yard and built a hut out of branches trimmed from bushes. Then there were all those “fox holes” my brother and I dug after watching WWII movies… All of those experiences developed creative, cognitive, and coordination skills, along with confidence.

    • And made you so self-sufficient! In some ways, not knowing how difficult something is and not realizing how clueless I am (this unconscious incompetence stage) has allowed me to just dive in and give it a whirl.

  7. Oh, this really resonates with me…I’m struggling to learn how to knit and it’s been so hard. I actually thought I could just pick up the needles and go but it sure hasn’t turned out that way. I’m determined to see it through, however! 🙂

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  10. I’ve had a busy few days with no time to read blogs, and now I’m reading this series backwards! This is the last of the four I’ve read. Thanks so much: useful and thought provoking. It’s really helpful to think about the four stages. If you can get beyond Stage 1, the rest may (might, should) follow with sufficient hard work … if the motivation is there.

    • Glad you persevered, even though it must’ve been a little confusing to read backwards! I think, for me, the conscious incompetence stage is the worst–I look at how good others are at something and know I am not . . . it would be easy to not even try!

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