The 4 Stages of Competence When Learning Something New
Do you ever get that ‘three steps forward and two steps back’ feeling that you’re not getting somewhere as quickly as you’d like? Maybe you’re learning something new or you’ve set yourself a goal, only to find you’re not making much progress.
Please don’t throw in the towel! There’s evidence to suggest that adult learning has a positive impact on self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing, yet we can also get caught up in negative self-talk and give up too easily. Everything that’s taught can be enjoyable if we can keep a positive mindset.
There are 4 Stages of Competence and understanding which stage you’re at will keep you going when you’re feeling inept. Knowing these 4 Stages of Competence has moved me forward at times when I’ve felt incredibly frustrated that I’m not making enough progress. It’s helped me to see that progress comes out of feeling incompetent!
The 4 Stages of Competence
Stage One: Unconsciously Incompetent
This is the stage where you don’t know what you don’t know. They say ‘ignorance is bliss’, but that’s not always the case, especially if you’re blaming your circumstances or others for what’s not going well. Life is happening to you, rather than by you and you don’t feel in control of the outcomes. This leads to blame, anger, powerlessness and feeling like a victim.
Stage Two: Consciously Incompetent
In this stage, you know what you don’t know. You’re hyper-aware of your incompetence and you feel like you’re doing things ‘wrong’ a lot of the time. This stage can feel really uncomfortable and frustrating. You have to pass through this to get to Stage Three so stay determined and keep going. Simply recognise your ‘Stage Two Moments’ and be extra kind to yourself. At least now you’re aware of what you could be doing better.
Stage Three: Consciously Competent
At this stage you’re getting it right more often because you’re concentrating. You’re doing things like creating step by step action plans, being resourceful and finding solutions for your challenges. And you’re feeling pretty good! When you make mistakes, you learn from them and apply what you’ve learned to make things better. You’ll find yourself moving a lot between Stages Two and Three, but the most important way to move forward is to stay positive and not get down on yourself when you don’t get it ‘right’. See slip-ups as growth opportunities and celebrate all small steps in the right direction.
Stage Four: Unconsciously Competent
Now you’re getting it right so often that it becomes second nature. The Holy Grail. Enlightenment!
I’ll give you some examples to show you what I mean.
How I Moved Through the 4 Stages of Competence In My Parenting:
Before I enrolled in a life changing parenting skills course with The Parent Practice, I was definitely in Stage One: Unconsciously Incompetent! My three and six year old were driving me nuts and I took the course to try to ‘fix’ their behaviour. I soon realised that there was nothing wrong with my kids. It was my own behaviour that needed fixing. Gulp.
Now I was firmly in Stage Two: Consciously Incompetent. There was a sudden awareness about all of the stuff I was doing ‘wrong’. I felt overwhelmed and very incompetent. It’s not a fun feeling to be in Stage Two, but it’s vital to pass through it on your way to Stage Three. I learned to recognise this and not be so hard on myself.
As my ten week course continued and I started to implement what I was learning in class each week, I moved into the Stage Three ‘Consciously Competent’ stage. I was remembering what to do, getting great results, and I was aware of how good that felt. Well, actually I vacillated a lot between Stages Two and Three because trying to implement a load of new changes every week can be kind of crazy-making if you’re not practicing a lot of self-compassion. I persevered with my goal of being a calmer parent and over time I became even more Consciously Competent in the skills.
You may wonder, when did I move into the glorious fourth stage of being Unconsciously Competent? The truth is, I don’t really know. That’s the thing about Unconscious Competence…. you’re not aware of when you’ve consistently slid into it. My two challenging little boys are now taller-than-me teenagers and I can’t remember the last time I had pull any particular parenting skills out of the bag. It feels very innate to me now.
Does this mean I always get it right with my kids or that I’ll never face another challenging parenting issue? Absolutely not. But I truly believe I’m the best mother I can be, and I couldn’t have said that twelve years years ago. I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel when I was feeling incredibly incompetent.
I Also Moved Through the 4 Stages of Competence When I Was Creating My Business:
When I was setting up Project Me as a business in 2013, I was thrust deep into the Consciously Incompetent stage. I had to figure out how to create a website, learn countless tech skills, manage social media platforms and online marketing so I could actually reach the women I was trying to help. Thankfully I did Marie Forleo’s online business school which fast-tracked me into Stage Three quicker than I’d ever done without that high level of learning and support.
I can apply the same 4 Stages of Competence to other areas of my life too. For example, when I was first creating my own personal ‘Project Me’ and wanted to step out of auto-pilot and live my life with intention. I was constantly having to remind myself to do my Life Wheel check-in and pay closer attention to where I was in or out of balance. I had to carefully write out my goals with step-by-step action steps to keep me moving forward. Now, more days than not, I’m Unconsciously Competent at keeping my vibrations high, tuning into my intuition and living life with effortless flow and ease. Which feels amazing!
I’m still Consciously Incompetent at plenty of things. (And probably Unconsciously Incompetent too, who knows?!) But when I notice that ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ feeling, I remind myself that it’s normal and to keep going.
Have a think about how the 4 Stages of Competence applies to you and your life.
Where are you experiencing the frustration of knowing that you’re not doing things ‘right’ or as well as you’d like? This is Stage Two and it’s actually a good sign that you’re not stuck in complete ignorance. You’re no longer blaming other people or circumstances and you’re owning it.
Give yourself loads of credit for when you do get it right and celebrate any wonderful Stage Three Moments! The more you do this, the faster you’ll progress. Your emotions carry energy, so focus on feeling hopefulness, optimism and eager expectation.
Learning something new in one area of your life triggers ideas in another. So stay curious and see what opens up next.
In the comments below, share something you’re learning or have learned and what stage you’re in. I’d love to hear your examples.
Want support with your goals and dreams? I created the Project WE membership club to help women like you to move forward with positive intentions and step by step action plans. Together we will cheer your wins and support your challenges, offering up fresh ideas and perspectives to keep you moving through the 4 Stages of Competence so you don’t give up.
New content is added to the Members’ Hub every month to support and inspire you to keep learning and growing on a whole range of topics. I run a monthly live online workshop and I bring in guest experts to support you with whatever you’re aiming towards in any of your 8 Key Life Areas.
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