Learning is a long and tough process. It can be exhausting. Even when we find a subject or career we may see as “not work”, it still feels like work. We can love it and it can still be hard work. Common advice is “do what you love”, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult.

The process of learning a skill or subject is a lifelong pursuit. However, we can see a clearer picture if we divide learning up into chapters. The four stages of competence are a useful tool when visualizing this:

1) Unconscious incompetence – We have no idea of the standard or any idea how to obtain the related skill set. We are completely unaware of our lack of ability due to the absence of metrics.

2) Conscious incompetence – We recognize we are not good at the skill set, and actively seek out how to improve. We fail, continuously in the pursuit of becoming better.

3) Conscious competence – We know the standard and we pretty much meet the standard, with hard work. Our knowledge is slightly ahead of our physical ability to perform a task perfectly.

4) Unconscious competence – The skill is second nature and does not require manhandling to execute. We think of the result we want rather than the process.

Number 1 is naive- “some people are just freaks!”. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones, those others have abilities that are impossible to learn. Wait, you mean through practice and diligent work, I can improve upon what things I already do somewhat well naturally? Or maybe its the “I am doing everything the same way as everyone else (or so I think), surely I will be successful!”. Everyone gets a trophy in the end, right?

Number 2 was the wake up call- maybe it is someone telling you that you are fooling yourself if you think you have some bragging rights to your ability. Maybe it was seeing someone else succeed when 3 years earlier you had determined them not to be a “freak”, therefore would not find success. Attempting to get past this point is can be the make or break for some people. You either see your lack of ability as motivation to learn more, or as a cue to do something else.

Number 3 and 4 are debatably very close, and perhaps interchangeable. In the case of a musician, #3 is when our ear, hearing the mistakes and knowing how things should be, is ahead of our physical ability to express those ideas. #4 is the ultimate, being able to perform with no hiccups in the execution or stress about the outcome. However, our “why” goals may change, which needs our “how” to change as well. Building one crude version of something is very different than building 100 finely made versions of them in the same amount of time. The process will need updating.

Though these stages are relegated to 4 steps, a mastery of a skill isn’t a instruction manual of Four Easy Steps to Acquisition. It is a constant process of tweaking and improvement. Not only is what we are pursuing as individuals evolving over time, but the world around us is also changing. You may not have a choice to change or update your skills; the world may need it from you before you “feel” like it. But, that challenge should give joy to the lifelong learner. The comfortable thing is to stick with what you know, but if we used that plan from Day 1, we wouldn’t have learned to tie our shoes.

Recognize where you are and keep going.

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