A mad, but good week so far. I’ve done some new things this week and have been helping some other people learn too. That started me thinking about the learning process and the stages on the way to becoming competent at something, learning about learning…

The day before yesterday, I headed out to the train station to catch a train, for the first time in a long while. As I approached the station I saw a huge queue at the ticket counter. No problem. There were also two ticket machines outside, right by the equally huge queue by the taxis. So I walked up to one of the machines, selected my ticket and went to pay. The machine spits out my card, with a no-can-do-message. The man at the machine next to me says, “The machine’s broken, and that’s the queue” and nods in a general direction. OK, so the machine’s broken, I already know where the queue for the ticket office is. I go to use the second ticket machine. As I feel eyes burning in my back, suddenly the penny dropped. When he said “that’s the queue” he was nodding towards the queue for the taxis. That queue was actually the queue for the working ticket machine. Safe to say, I shamefully went back and queued up, I am british after all. I duly missed my train as I waited to buy the ticket. You live, you learn.

The Learning Process

There are distinct phases in developing a new skill. We start as incompetent, but unaware of our incompetence. That is unconscious incompetence. We don’t know that we don’t know and we are comfortable with our ignorance. Then something happens to surface our incompetence. Someone says something to us or we receive feedback via some mechanism. At that point we either give up, or we start to work on aquiring that new skill. We are now incompetent, but consciously so. As we learn, we become consciously competent. As we go on to gain repeated experience, we become increasingly unconscious of our competence. Finally, we end up unconsciously competent. I’ve heard this sort of model talked about, but never seen it documented anywhere. I’d be very interested to read any research that might exist on it.

There are some key takeaways from this model:

  1. When we are incompetent, we don’t know that we are until we receive feedback. Solicit feedback!
  2. We feel the most incompetent just before we become competent. Press on through. This isn’t the time to give up, even though it feels like you want to.
  3. You’ve finally mastered something when you don’t realise how good you are. There again, you may have just slipped back into unconscious incompetence.

Awareness of the process is a great aid in learning new skills. Don’t worry if someone makes you feel a bit of an idiot, they may just have put you on the first step to becoming less of one. When you feel like you are useless at it, don’t give up. You know what happens next? You are just about to get good! All it takes is a little bit more practice.

See Also: The 3 Stages of Mastery