The Stages for Learning Any New Skill

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Learning new skills efficiently is a key aspect of any good life improvement plan, so that's why I took notice when I came across something yesterday called the Four Stages of Competence Model. This model (also known as the Conscious Competence Model) helps to give us a roadmap for understanding what stages are involved in acquiring a new skill. 


1. Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage, the person is not even aware that they do not know the skill. This can also be expressed as denying the usefulness of the skill. People who do not progress in a certain area are often mired in unconscious incompetence because they are so unaware (in this specific area) that they don't even realize there is a problem in the first place. The only way to move to the next stage is for someone to recognize their existing lack of competence in a certain area and to recognize the value of obtaining that competence. This often requires some kind of external stimulus. 

I'm going to create an example to demonstrate these stages. Meet Joe. Joe does not know how to drive a car and at this stage it hasn't even occurred to him to learn how to drive car. 


2. Conscious Incompetence

Here the person is now at least aware that they do not understand / know how to do something. They also recognize the value of learning the skill that they currently don't have. This is when people start initial experimentation to begin learning the new skill. This is also a time when they make a lot of mistakes in various ways because they don't really know what they are doing yet. 

In our example, Joe now realizes that he doesn't know how to drive a car and enlists his friend Sheila to teach him how to drive. 


3. Conscious Competence

Enough practice has now occurred so that the person understands or knows how to do something. However, performing the skill still requires a lot of attention and mental focus. Heavy conscious involvement is required to remember the exact steps, in the exact order.

With intense focus, Joe can now drive the car if Sheila is sitting in the passenger's seat to help when problems arise.


4. Unconscious Competence

Now the person has practiced the new skill enough so that it can be done unconsciously. The new skill at this point feels like second nature to the person: very natural and almost effortless. In fact, the skill can be performed while executing another task.

Joe can now drive the car by himself and it doesn't take a lot of effort anymore. In fact, now he can enjoy music on his car stereo while driving. 


(5. Reflective Competence)

Some people have proposed a fifth stage as an addendum to the original four-stage model, which is when you can teach other people the skill with a high degree of consistency. To me, this is not so much a seperate fifth stage as much as the true culmination of the stage 4 unconscious competence stage. 

Joe is now able to teach others how to drive. 


Why is this Important?

The four+ stages of competence model is a roadmap which you can use to measure your progress in learning just about anything. I also like that each stage in the process suggests what sort of action would be required to graduate to the next stage, which makes it a very practical mental model.

What's a skill you are trying to learn? How far along are you right now based on this model?