Getting Competent Is Conscious
It’s fun, and somewhat inspiring, to watch a baby progress from flops to the first real sequence of steps, thereby qualifying to be a toddler. It’s less fun to live in the same household with a person learning to play the violin.
Both are learning processes. Walking may be close to a natural act for a human being, but playing the violin is not. In fact, almost everything we consciously do all day had to be learned, because we weren’t born knowing how to do it. Incompetence is our natural state.
So we spend our entire lives learning stuff. It’s a lifelong project.
We have help. Parents, siblings, teachers, friends, supervisors, the Internet, books, classes, the media.
But it’s not simple. Our attention is limitlessly scattered, with the constant bombardment of what we’re seeing, hearing and doing, plus the flood of internal responses, impressions and random firings of the imagination. It’s uncontrollable.
We can, though, lay out a path through the chaos and – with discipline – make some headway along it. Moments of triumph in the struggle are when you can see that you’ve integrated a new skill, insight or behavior into your regular activities.
We’re kidding ourselves if we fail to account for how tough it is to learn some significant new thing, such as playing the violin or managing a project. We need to practice a persistent devotion to the discomfort of changing both thinking patterns and ingrained behavior.
How many times have we abandoned some effort because we lost interest in the face of repeated shortfalls? The more rewarding the intended goal, the more likely it is that the process of getting there will be a grind.
If we let the difficulty get to us, we think more and more about the effort and disappointment, and less about the potential payoff. To head that off, we need to devise and pursue an intentional process that doesn’t fade on us.
Persistence in such an effort requires unbroken focus, discipline. Discipline, if it is to be useful, depends upon logic, desire and emotional drive. The person who succeeds in learning and integrating a valuable new skill set puts all three to work in getting the job done.
Logic is first. Without a solid base, desire and emotion are wasted. When things are tough and complicated, it’s helpful to start with an oversimplification. Here’s a handy one for adult skill-building: The Conscious Competence Model.
The model, which has been around in some form for centuries, lays out the four stages a person goes through in developing a complex new ability:
Unconscious Incompetence is when the person doesn’t know the skill, and doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know about it. The person may or may not even have heard of it, but definitely can’t function in it.
Conscious Incompetence is the second stage. This is when the person knows about the skill and may have been introduced to it, but can’t do it. This the diciest part of the learning curve. Discouragement can set in. The learner needs to be committed, and can really use knowledgeable support and practical advice.
Conscious Competence. Now the person knows what the skill is all about, and can perform it well – but only by focusing closely on it. Coaching is really helpful here.
Unconscious Competence is the performer at the pinnacle. The training is over, and the skill set has been practiced and performed so many times the person does it without flaw and without thinking about it. This is when strategy and imagination can be added to produce the top level of success.
What this means, especially for anyone teaching or showing skills to others, is that the instruction must be tuned to the trainee’s level of knowledge in the subject.
A frequent problem is that the instructor, thoroughly familiar with the skill and not very knowledgeable about the person being trained, assumes a higher level of competence than the person actually possesses.
Every trainer knows what a problem it is to attempt to train people who don’t have the basic preparation, or to present skills instruction to people who don’t see the purpose, or don’t think they need it.
A similar negative can be when the senior person is so familiar with the process and has internalized key parts of it so completely he/she doesn’t think to present a pattern the trainee can follow and understand.
The person doing the learning must account properly for the competence level, too.
This begins at the first stage, when the trainee must be open to the discussions that establish the purpose and value of the instruction – and the person’s own stake in successful acquisition of the new skills.
The learner’s accountability also requires communicating immediately when any element of the explanation, demonstration and practice isn’t clear. If the instructor uses terms that don’t make sense, speak up.
Essentially, the learner must be assertive in taking prime responsibility for the success of the instruction. You are committed to being ready, as soon as possible, to competently practice this skill set on the job. So you study and practice on your own to sharpen your ability to derive maximum benefit from the sessions with the instructor.
In the end, the highest level of learning is having learned how to learn. Unconscious competence in unconscious competence.