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