Remember how eagerly you plunged into the learning of new skills in childhood? Things like athletics, dance, learning a language, and driving a car were pursued with dogged determination until we learned how to do them. You got engrossed in the process and eventually learned how to do these things without thinking. As an adult, the undertaking of new activities becomes less frequent. We become content to sit on life’s sidelines and watch while others do things we’d like to do but don’t. We have reasons, or so we’d like to think, that we can no longer even attempt these things. Are we right? Maybe, or maybe we over analyze the process. Is there a way to learn new skills and undertake new activities within the adult tendency to over analyze?
Learning Theory may have an answer for us. Knowing where you are in the process enables you to analyze your progress more realistically, and see where you are along the road to becoming competent with a new skill. Like a lot of developmental theories, this is a stage theory. Stage theory means that you will typically go through a series of steps, or stages, and you cannot skip any of them. You may be on one stage for a long time before moving to the next, or you may spend a lot of time on a particular stage before moving on. Knowing where you are in the process by identifying which stage you are at will enable you to see that you are, in fact, making progress. Recognition of each stage serves the purpose of breaking the task down into four simple subsets. Any task or skill is learned sequentially whether you are aware of it or not. Those of us that are not “naturals” do better if the new task is broken down into stages.
The four stages are:
1. Unconscious Incompetence-In this stage a person is unaware that they don’t have a skill. They literally “Don’t know that they don’t know.” The stage applies to things that people do poorly without realizing. In this stage people are screwing up frequently and are not even aware that they are. Many people live lives that are unsatisfying and marked by frequent failures because much of what they do occurs in this stage.
2. Conscious Incompetence-in this stage a person is aware that they don’t know how to do something or do not possess a desired skill. This is the beginning stage for most new skills that one pursues voluntarily. For example, you decide to embark on a fitness routine. As you begin this venture, you quickly become conscious of your lack of skills, abilities, and preparedness. You become immediately aware of your incompetence, and your body reminds you of this. Perhaps you can recall the anxiety you experienced when you first learned how to drive a car. Remember that first day behind the wheel? You probably were very aware that you didn’t know what you were doing. This is the essence of conscious incompetence. You are aware that you don’t know what you are doing. For many adults this is the moment when doubt and negative self talk takeover and we quit. We give up pursuing a new task or skill, and we make up some rationalization as to why we never wanted it in the first place.
3.-Conscious Competence-This stage is the longest and in some cases the final stage of skills acquisition. In this stage you can do the new skill or task pretty well, but it requires conscious attention to the activity. Lots of activities are extremely enjoyable at this stage. Many are satisfied with the feeling of competence in this stage, and that positive feeling allows them to pursue the activity quite frequently. This is the stage when new activities become worthwhile and enjoyable. Remember driving your car through your first major intersection? You got through it okay, well at least you’re alive to read this article, and you probably experienced a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. You were probably, at that moment, very aware of each step you took to get through. In this stage people can do the task quite well, but they must pay attention to details and be mindful of each step. Despite this challenge the activity is satisfying and rewarding. The reward is the subjective feeling of competence, the “I can do it all by myself,” satisfaction that we enjoyed as children.
4. Unconscious Competence-This is the final step in the process. And, you don’t need to get to this stage to be proficient or to enjoy the activity. In many cases one can get to this stage through repetition. This stage is marked by the ability to do the task without having to think about it. It’s one of those experiences where doing the task feels like being “in the zone,” or in a “flow state.” You can now do the skill with little effort almost automatically. We frequently see this in athletes, performing artists, and musicians. Ever watch Eric Clapton play guitar and wondered how the heck he does that with his eyes closed? That’s unconscious competence at its finest.
You may be thinking that this stage is impossible for you to get to. Not true. Let’s get back to the driving analogy. If you’ve ever driven for long periods of time, arrived safely at your destination, and then realized that your mind was elsewhere the whole time, then you’ve been in a state of unconscious competence. You got there, safely, and didn’t think about it. If you can type over 60 words a minute, ice skate, hit a baseball, do the tango, or anything else without thinking about it, you have this ability. Performance experts estimate that it takes approximately 10,000 repetitions of an individual skill to get to this stage. And that’s for people who are “average” in their ability to perform the task. If you have aptitude for the skill the stage of unconscious competence may arrive earlier.
So what’s the message? The take-home point is that, as an adult, we should be less self-critical when taking on new tasks. There are a lot of activities and skills that, if pursued, you can attain. The self critic in us tends to quiet down if our rational mind realizes where we are in the process. It’s simply a matter of identifying where you are in this stage theory and repetition. Get off the sidelines and into the game!
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