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