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THE FOUR STAGES OF COMPETENCE ON THE PATH TO MASTERY

June 12, 2019

The process of mastering any skill is a long and tedious journey. It involves many hours and a whole lot of trial and error. You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell based on research done by Anders Ericsson, which has recently been largely debunked. The biggest flaws of the 10,000 hour rule is that it focuses on the amount of time spent practicing, and not the quality of that practice – and not all practice is equally helpful. The number of hours is arbitrary, and what really matters is “deliberate practise” where we are highly focused, integrate feedback from experts, and work on the correct technique, rather than doing something wrong for an extended period of time. Moreover, what is often neglected in the 10,000 hour rule is the role of psychology. Humans are not machines and do not follow a linear path to mastering a skill, but rather go through various stages of understanding based on many variables. Our skill level does not always match the perceived challenge and this is a crucial ingredient to get right in order to get good at anything. I have talked about having a balance between challenge and skill as an antecedent to flow before in previous posts, and it is equally important in understanding how performers go through various stages of competence in a skill.  

 

First introduced by an employee at the Gordon Training Institute, the four stages of competence is a learning model that relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing to competence in a skill. The model looks like this:


 

1. Unconscious incompetence

 

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

 

2. Conscious incompetence

 

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

 

3. Conscious competence

 

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill

 

4. Unconscious competence

 

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned. This stage leads to a greater likelihood of flow state to occur.

 

 

If an individual is in stage one, the amount of time spent practising the skill will only help them improve slightly since they are not even aware of the correct technique. Practising a backhand in Tennis with improper technique for 10,000 hours will not increase your backhand ability to the degree that having an expert coach correct your mistakes and provide valuable feedback will. Integrating systems of feedback is crucial to progressing up in level. Having the right feedback from a valued coach or mentor can increase your perceived level of competence which is in line with research on self-determination theory, the main driver behind intrinsic motivation.

 

What is interesting is that many people in stage one are often quite confident in their ability. This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect where novices tend to under-estimate the amount of time and skill required to master something.

 

 

 

As we progress in the stages of competence confidence tends to go down as we are starting to realize how much more there is to learn. As Aristotle said, “the more you know, the more you know you don't know”, and this causes a lack of confidence. If you feel you are at this stage fear not, as it is quite normal and with time the idea of how much you don’t know will no longer be a hindrance, but rather free you to focus on the right things that are within your control. In order to progress more effectively through the beginning stages it is of vital importance to integrate feedback systems in order to gain more competence.

 

We may also ensure we meet the other supportive needs of self-determination theory, which are autonomy and relatedness. Increasing your ability to choose how you master your skill (training programs, timelines, etc.) and also perhaps training with people on similar pursuits can greatly enhance your intrinsic motivation to master a skill. Self determination theory has been widely shown to be effective in increasing motivation and promoting or strengthen aspirations or life goals that  provide satisfaction of human needs. 

 

Every individual will progress in various ways and there is no perfect formula to master a skill. But here are a few tips to guide you through the process of moving into stage four, unconscious competence:

 

  • Failure is your friend

Fail hard, fail often, but make sure you are learning from each failure and correcting the mistakes. Anyone who has reached success has failed a lot more often than the ones who didn't make it. Develop a hypothesis, test it out, analyze the results, develop another hypothesis and keep going until you move up a level. 

 

  • Quality over quantity

The 10,000 hour rule is misleading. A lot of different things affect learning such as genetics, age of exposure to skill, and environmental factors. But with the right corrective feedback and intentional use of time one can make the most of their practise. This leads to the next tip; enhancing focus.

 

  • Practise mindfulness

In order to engage in deliberate practise as Ericsson suggests, you must increase your ability to focus on the task at hand. An hour training session with a wandering mind can drastically decrease the learning process. 8 minutes a day of mindfulness as been shown to be the minimum amount of time to start seeing physical changes in the attention centers of the brain. 

 

  • Be patient

Good things take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day as the old saying goes so make sure you don’t rush the process and be sure not to get caught up in judging yourself for not progressing as quickly as you would like to. The more pressure you put on yourself the more time it will take. Relax, and let natural learning take place.

 

 

 

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