Conscious Incompetence

Elizabeth Kubler Ross describes our learning going through four stages

  • Unconscious Incompetence (i.e. we don’t know what we don’t know)
  • Conscious Incompetence (i.e. we now know that we don’t know)
  • Conscious Competence (i.e. we are competent but only if we are paying attention)
  • Unconscious Competence (i.e. we are competent and don’t even need to think about it)

Whenever I explain this to clients I use the example of driving a car as it is a pretty universal experience and allows us to easily understand the four stages above. My kindergarten daughter is blissfully unaware that there is such a thing as learning to drive a car and she is not aware that she is incompetent when it comes to driving a car.

This will all change when she turns 17, and starts to practice towards her drivers licence. She will quickly realise, or become conscious, that she is incompetent in the area of driving and will need to practice in order to become competent.

At the point where she is driving, perhaps still with some supervision, she will be consciously competent. Competent in driving but having to concentrate and think about what she is doing. ‘Push the clutch in, change the gear, turn the corner’ – all very conscious and deliberate steps hence conscious competence.

Once she has been driving for a few years she will forget all about that and like most people who have driven for a while will reach a stage where if asked a question such as ‘what gear where you in when you turned the corner?’ would probably look blankly at the questioner because the act of driving has become completely unconscious.

If you think about it, you’ll find that whenever you learn something new you go through this process. From working on a computer to public speaking, it starts unconscious, becomes consciously uncomfortable and with practice gets more comfortable and less conscious.

I posted about my experiences in the cockpit (Learning to Fly – October 2007) where I went through this process and this last week I had a similar experience. I asked a swim coach at my gym to look at my stroke and give me some advice.

I think I’m a reasonable swimmer. I swam 1:08 in the Ironman last year which I was happy with. After 10 minutes in the pool this week, I realised how much more I could learn. I wasn’t maximizing my stroke at the end, pushing back with my hand as I’m reaching forward with my other hand. My kicking was a bit erratic and could be harder. I was breathing on every 3rd stroke and was recommended to breath on every 5th. And lastly I wasn’t reaching far enough forward with my arms.

Within 20 minutes of trying out these new techniques, I could see that I could improve – tangible evidence was 16 strokes across the pool instead of 20/22 when I started. However, I did feel a bit like a swimming klutz. I couldn’t get my feet to kick at the same time as breathing and while I was concentrating on getting one thing right, the others would slip. This as a result of becoming conscious about my incompetence.

I found it incredibly humbling and I am very thankful that I can still learn new things. In fact I find it incredibly exciting that I could become a better swimmer in my 40’s than I ever was in my teens. I always thought I was late developer. Yoga is a bit like that. My teacher for many year Ysette Myers used to always say she was only a beginner despite having taught yoga for 27 years.

My other insight was that it’s impossible to get to the unconscious competence stage without first moving through the other stages. Some of them may go quicker but I need to master them all before I can really call myself competent.

Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.