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