Tag Archives: learning

You’re Incompetent and You Know It (Clap Your Hands)

I discovered a really awesome model of learning recently. It’s known in psychology circles as “The Four Stages of Learning”  and is frequently shown as a little four-part box. (Personally, I prefer a list, because it’s a progression, not a hopscotch situation.)
The four stages explain what it is like to learn something new: you move from not knowing how much you don’t know to eventually being completely proficient.
The four steps are:
  • Unconsciously Incompetent- You have no idea how hard something is because you’ve never tried it.
  • Consciously Incompetent– You’ve tried something and found out it’s actually not that easy. This is a potentially embarrassing place to be.
  • Consciously Competent– You’ve worked hard and now you know you’re actually doing it pretty well.
  • Unconsciously Competent– You’re so good that you don’t even have to think about it anymore, it just happens naturally.
As a writer, my guess is you spend at least some time feeling Consciously Incompetent, especially when there’s a deadline approaching and you have writers’ block and it all sucks. But with time and practice, you’ll be Consciously Competent, and that’s sort of an amazing and magical feeling.
I feel like Ira Glass’s quote about creativity strongly reflects this growth (I’ve marked the stages in brackets):

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.[Unconsciously Incompetent] But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. [Consciously Incompetent] A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, [Consciously Competent] and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Plus I have a feeling the folks who hear you’re a writer and say something idiotic like “oh, well you just stay home and write stuff all day, that’s not real work at all!” are just Unconsciously Incompetent. If they ever dared sit down and try to do it, they’d quickly realize that gap, too.
It’s good for our brains for us to move through these steps by trying new things. It’s also really hard. Do you make an effort to stretch yourself and learn something new? (I’m taking swing dance lessons. I am SO consciously incompetent right now!)

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