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The 4 stages of learning

Whether you’ve decided to build your social media presence or learn a new skill, there is a method at play

By Delna Mistry Anand

Published: Fri 18 Feb 2022, 11:53 AM

Recently, I’ve been checking in on my coaching clients to see how they’re faring with their new year goals. As expected, some are facing resistance in their journey. That ‘itch’ to go back to what is known and comfortable can be so tempting. But the good news is — this itch is a normal part of the process. When you accept this, it makes your journey easier.

So whether you’ve decided to build your social media presence or learn a new skill, there is a method at play. If you’ve ever felt “I’m not going to get this”, don’t let it stop you. Instead, take your thoughts back to a time in your life when you felt like you weren’t able to learn something easily, maybe riding a bicycle or swimming. Then suddenly one day, you were hit with a “I think I’m finally getting the hang of it”, and things started to fall into place. It’s all a part of the learning process.

Author Martin M. Broadwell said that no matter what you are learning, there are four distinct stages you must go through. This idea was further developed, and today, it is even relevant for these dynamic times which require us to keep learning and moving.

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

I don’t know what I don’t know

At this stage, you are not aware of how your current situation can be improved. Think of a skill or task you are good at right now, but knew nothing about in the past. As a child, you knew that there are cars and a car is driven, but you didn’t know that there’s an engine and accelerator and these are required to drive the car. So this is unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what is to be known.

So before trying to learn a new skill, you must first recognise your own deficit (“incompetence”) and the value of the new skill. Being aware of your mistakes, being ‘coachable’ and accepting change can be difficult. And for those who do not have a mindset for growth, learning gets stuck at this very stage.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

I know that I don’t know.

When you actually get into the car and start learning to drive, you’d remember how easy it was to forget to give the right/ left signal, look into the rear view mirrors, etc. This is the stage of recognising your mistakes, and what should be done. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage. The less you know, the greater the room for improvement. The more you think you already know can be your stumbling block.

This can be the best stage in the learning process, but be open to getting your mistakes checked.

Stage 3: Conscious competence

I know that I know.

Now, you’ve not only understood what needs to be done, and also how much focus and concentration is required at this stage. This can be a slower learning stage, as the learning has not yet become second nature to you yet, but you’re getting a good grasp of the skill by making mistakes while practising.

The key is to keep practising, over and over. Remember how ‘wax on wax off’ from the Karate Kid transformed from cleaning a car to a Karate move?

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

I don’t know that I know.

This is when you’re driving off safe and sound, fully in control of your vehicle; literally on autopilot. Your unconscious mind now takes over. It has become a habit. It’s true, we first make our habits, and then our habits make us. Enjoy this stage.

And lastly, a fifth stage can be called flow or mastery:

This is when your car literally flies. If you’ve watched a master at work, you’ll see this divine creative flow in motion. Have you heard Andrea Bocelli sing? Or Nadal playing tennis? That finesse is a work of art, and a sight to behold. Imagine this is just the next stage after unconscious competence. If they can do it, you can do it too.

With any new skill or habit, there are times when you wish to give up. Theory is always easier than practical, but next time you find yourself stuck, figure out which stage you are in, and do what it takes to jump into the next. It could be closer than you think.


Connect with Delna Mistry Anand across social media @DelnaAnand

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