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

Weaving Hands

Just look at these busy, happy hands!

As one of the people behind these hands, learning the most basic techniques of weaving, I can tell you that the hands often felt awkward, inept even. The hands faltered but did not fail. And the inexpert, novice hands were guided by the expert, experienced hands to a place of satisfaction.

I told you about a month ago that I’d been meaning to learn to weave (IBMTD) and that I’d found a workshop to take.

It had been a long time since I had taken a course. I like to think I can learn things on my own, by doing research and reading. I’m often stubborn about seeking guidance and asking for help. I tend to flap about and try to teach myself and make a lot of mistakes and get frustrated.

But, having just finished the workshop, with my husband and two other weaving newbies, I’m reporting back and also want to encourage you to take a course the next time you want to learn a new skill. And, P.S., weaving is a wonderful route to go, if you haven’t tried it before.

The workshop was perfect. Run by our local arts council, we had a teacher who is both an expert weaver and passionate about introducing new people to a craft she loves. As a bonus, she is also a retired teacher, so she actually knows how to teach!

Examples of our instructor's work

Examples of our instructor’s work

The workshop was limited to only four students so we got to know each other well and got lots of specialized help. None of us had any background at all in the craft so we learned together and from each other.

We learned on very simple frame looms; basically these were made of four pieces of wood and some nails to wrap string (the warp) around.IMG_5973

At first I thought I’d hate these looms—I wanted to learn on a big, fancy floor loom! I wanted to make shawls and blankets and twills and tweeds.

But we all learned to love our small, portable frame looms.

With the guidance of our teacher, we each made a small tapestry, incorporating many basic weaving techniques. We learned a new vocabulary, along with the skills—warp and weft, of course, but also sumac and tabby and rya.

The neatest thing about this kind of weaving is that it could be almost entirely improvisational and encouraged experimentation and creativity. Whereas loom weaving, as I understand it, relies heavily on following patterns and being very precise, our weaving evolved mostly without plan.

We chose colors as we went. We added different textured yarns and string and other fibers. We were shown how to incorporate shells and metals and stones and beads.

It was as if we couldn’t make mistakes and that is a wonderful, liberating way to learn!

We had our final class yesterday, put the finishing touches on our masterpieces, and sat back and appreciated them.

As the final session of class wound down, we got great news! Our instructor has arranged with the arts council to allow three of us to continue to the next level. In two weeks, we’ll start a new workshop to learn to use harness looms and to thread the heddles and sley the reed (whatever that means)!

I’m excited about this new venture but I know I’ll miss my homely little frame loom.

When I looked at our finished tapestries, the best part was seeing how different they were. Four people started at the same place, with access to the same materials and techniques, and created four entirely unique tapestries.

I’m sure there’s a profound metaphor for life here somewhere . . .




A Tangled Web I’ll Weave: IBMTD #6

loomI just realized it’s been two weeks since I’ve written about something I’ve been meaning to do! I’ve been meaning to write about what IBMTD—really, I have!

I wouldn’t want you to think I’m a slacker so I will give you the most recent news, although there will be more to come.

I, with my husband, signed up for a beginners’ weaving workshop offered by our local Arts Council.

The classes start a week from today and will lead us, we hope, to finally making sense of the biggest, dumbest impulse purchase we may have ever made.

We’ve been meaning to learn to weave because last year, at a garage sale, we bought a humongous floor loom. We bought it even though it’s a) humongous, b) we have no place in the house for it, and c) we have no idea how to use it! But we got a great deal on it!

It has been sitting in our garage, mocking us in a slightly sinister way, ever since.

But that’s all going to change. Pretty soon I’ll be throwing around words like warp and weft and heddles. And stalking blogs about weaving, trying to figure out what I’m doing.

God knows, I need a new hobby. To fill up my free time.

Do you know how to weave? Any basic words of wisdom for us?