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


13 thoughts on “Learning a New Skill 102—Can I?

  1. You are probably going to move to the practice, practice, practice part of learning soon. I agree with your points about expectations, values, and attitude. Part of the incompetence issue is the willingness to risk to make mistakes, and as you said, pick up to try again.

    • I think the third stage, which is conscious competence, is the practice, practice stage. Go slow, pay attention, repeat . . . until it becomes second nature.

    • Yes, indeed! I’m of the opinion that it should be a required course for college students. So many people are so fearful they won’t choose it, if given that choice.

  2. I’d love to go iceskating with you Kerry! I tried guitar lessons years ago, and it was even more difficult than I thought it would be. I didn’t get my hands to do what I wanted them to do. I decided that listening to music was something I liked more than making music, so I gave up…

    • And I’d love to play guitar with you (as well as ice skate)! I stuck with the guitar playing (although I never got very good) because I like the idea of regular people making music. And when I was in the Netherlands, I was so intrigued by the idea of skating on the canals–but, of course, we were there in summer and also I can’t skate . . . 😦

  3. Pingback: Learning a New Skill 201—I Think I Can . . . | Love Those "Hands at Home"

  4. Pingback: Learning a New Skill 202—I Knew I Could! | Love Those "Hands at Home"

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