Have you ever wondered, how exactly do we learn? My Brain and I have. And so, we did some research. Turns out it’s a repeatable process that happens every time we set out to learn something new. Here’s what it is and how to make it work any time you want to learn something you know absolutely nothing about.
In the 1970’s, a gentleman named Noel Burch, while working at Global Training International, developed a practical description of how people learn things. Initially called “The Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill”1 it has since also been referred to as “The Four Stages of Learning”, “The Four Stages of Competence” and “The Competency Ladder”.
What he wrote makes perfect sense to me so let’s see if I can explain it to you. Let me start with a few questions:
First, before we are aware? We are what?
We are unaware. Right?
And when we are not conscious we are what?
We are unconscious.
And before we are competent we are what?
We are incompetent.
According to the four stages of competence, the first stage is called Unconscious Incompetence.
Noel Burch describes this first step as follows:
1) Unconscious Incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.3
This is how I describe it:
We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know that this thing that requires learning and competence exists; we are “unaware”.
Academy Award winning writer, director, actor and comedian, Woody Allen has this to say:
“I don't know what I'm doing, but my incompetence has never stopped my enthusiasm.”4
Mr. Allen has the right attitude. Enthusiasm is a necessary ingredient to overcoming incompetence.
At this point, an obvious question would be, “If I don’t know this thing exists, how do I find out?” In other words, how do I become “aware”?
There are a number of ways this issue can be addressed.
Perhaps we’re talking with a friend and he or she starts talking about something we’ve never heard of. Or we read a book and the author introduces you to a new concept… like the Four Stages of Learning. Or maybe we take a class or we stumble upon it on the internet, or see it on tv.
There are a million ways that things we don’t know about come over the horizon and cross our bow.
At this point, one of three things typically happens:
A) We remain oblivious. We don’t even see it and it goes unnoticed. Hopefully we don’t run into it and it sinks our ship.
B) We notice it but disregard it completely or avoid it altogether and the ship passes right on by.
C) Our curiosity is piqued, and we recognize it as something that is of interest and as an opportunity to learn something new.
If A or B happens, we’re lacking enthusiasm. We remain on the first step of the ladder and continue life unconscious, incompetent, unknowing and unaware, living in a state of ignorant bliss. But, if we choose C (and I want to emphasize that it is a choice, it is a decision), if we choose C, we change. We move from a state of ignorance, to a state of awareness.
Something else is going on at this point. We need to recognize and appreciate our incompetence. We must be willing to learn. And that will allow us to step up to the next level which Noel Burch laid out for us to consider.
The second stage is called Conscious Incompetence.
2) Conscious Incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.5
Now in my words:
We still don’t know how to do whatever it is we’ve learned exists. But we now recognize that fact and so we begin the process of learning.
What exactly does that mean? How do we learn?
We research, or actually try it out. This step in the process requires trial and error so we’re going to have to experiment a bit. The amount of trial and error will depend on our prior experiences with similar things and a slew of other factors but whatever the case, we’re going to make some mistakes – which are a learning opportunity in and of themselves. More on that later.
By way of example, do you remember learning to tie your shoes? I do. It went something like this…my mom showed me how to do it and at first, I simply couldn’t do it. It was a struggle. But after the first few attempts, I managed to do it - poorly. Sound familiar? My shoes were either too loose or my laces kept coming untied because I didn’t pull the loops tight enough. That’s because I wasn’t comfortable with the process. I got frustrated and I was skeptical if I would ever “get it”. Right? Are you with me?
Whether it’s learning to tie our shoes or understand pretty much anything new, we have now reached another decision point.
We will have to choose either:
A) Get frustrated, lose interest and give up. (Which means we commit to slip-ons, flip-flops or going barefoot for the rest of our lives.)
B) Our progress is encouraging and interesting and that gives us the energy to press on and take the next step up the ladder.
Aviation pioineer, Amelia Earhart, had the right attitude to take the next step when she said:
“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”6
I’d like to add something to that… “The most effective way to do it, is to do it. And do it. And do it. Again and Again and Again.” The only way we’re going to do that, is if we have some level of interest and determination. We have to be motivated to take what little we’ve learned and have a desire to expand on that basic knowledge.
Noel Burch goes on to describe the third step of the ladder, Conscious Competence:
3) Conscious Competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.7
Let’s use a different example. Learning to drive a car. At first, it’s hard. It’s even scary. There are consequences if we screw it up - It’s life and death for heaven’s sake. Therefore, we have to think about what we’re doing.
We start out slowly, in a safe environment. Back in the day we had to take driver’s education classes to begin. They wouldn’t even let us near a car. We had these silly (but safe) simulators that were designed to familiarize us with the process. And then they moved us out to the parking lot where the worst that could happen is we kill a cone or two. Sometimes parents are brave enough to teach us in the family car. In my case it was my Grandpa and my friends. I was the youngest in my grade so all my buddies had their licenses before me. And they were into cars so while the statute of limitations has run out, it’s probably best I don’t tell you any details about that part of my learning experience. I can tell you however that I remember my Grandpa sitting in the passenger seat and pressing hard on the floor every time he thought I needed to use the brake. And then there was the time I clipped a parked car with the side mirror. That was the end of that lesson.
I digress but with reason. The bottom line is when we start to learn something new, we have to be painfully aware, painfully conscious of every step of the process. When driving a car for instance, we get in, put our seatbelt on, check and adjust the mirrors, put our foot on the brake, turn the key, put it in gear, check all around us to make sure it’s safe to pull out, and all of this is before the wheels even turn. Remember that? It was super stressful, right? If we were smart, we had zero confidence and we built our confidence up slowly through practice and paying attention to every detail.
We eventually graduate from the parking lot and really drive… on the road - in traffic. On the freeway even! Hopefully you won’t take any mirrors off of parked cars like I did but over time it’s likely, hopefully, you have all become much better drivers. As we all know though, not everyone actually achieves that and the “Competent” part of this step of “Conscious Competence” is a stretch at best.
Whatever the case, we now we find ourselves at yet another decision point. With this newfound “competence” we either:
A) Say, “I got this.” And we become overconfident and “think” we’re an expert. Which, by the way, means we no longer feel the need to learn.
B) We say, “I suck at this.” And we recognize the fact that we’re not an expert and have some distance to cover before we get there. Which means we choose to continue to improve through conscious learning and practice.
C) We quit and take the bus.
“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”
Meaning it takes approximately ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to reach true expertise and master any skill.
Using our example of learning to drive, that may sound like a lot of hours to successfully drive to the grocery store but, if we are to master driving a car, like how a race car driver drives a car, that’s what he’s talking about. But that doesn’t mean with our ten-thousand hours invested we’ll be able to beat anyone in the Andretti family. Natural talent also plays a role in our level of success. That’s not the point though. The point is, it takes deliberate practice to achieve mastery. Gladwell also writes in Outliers;
“If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.”8
Words of wisdom.
Now, if we’ve come this far and our desire is to become better at this new thing that led us into this process of learning, and we apply our mind, body and spirit to that process, and practice, practice, practice, we will eventually find ourselves on the fourth step of Mr. Burch’s ladder.
This fourth step is called Unconscious Competence.
4) Unconscious Competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.9
We’re all masters of many skills. We should give ourselves credit for that. They’re all the things we do - that we just do – without thinking about it. They’re things that have become second nature. We’ve mastered the skill. It’s part of who we are. If we go back to one of our examples; do you have to think about tying your shoes? No. You just do it and then you move on to the next thing. I get that tying your shoe is probably not something you are known for or run around saying hey, I’m a master shoe-tier but that’s not the point. The point is, we all have the capacity to learn and master many things. To “shape the world to our desires” as Mr. Gladwell stated. That doesn’t mean that we are all going to go down in history as icons like Beethoven, Rembrandt or Mario Andretti but we can master things that are important to us. It can be something personal like; golf, cooking, gardening or yoga. Or professional; we can work our way to a leadership position in our established field or even in a new career. Of course, we all have our innate talents that make it easier to learn specific skills, but the bottom line is if we choose to learn, we can, and we do.
We all go through this process whether we’re aware of it or not. But now that you are aware of it, I hope you understand and recognize that learning is a repeatable process which can applied to pretty much anything - which is why Noel Burch called the process “The Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill”10.
Please keep that in mind next time you feel overwhelmed when learning something new. Just relax and know that, with a little more effort, you’ll get there.
This post is based on a chapter from my book entitled, “Embracing Change: Your Go-To Guide To Your Desired Future”. If you enjoyed this and are interested in seeing more “change for the better” content please visit my website rudypoe.com where you can also sign up for my, "Every So Often Change For The Better Letter" email newsletter.