Stages of Learning and Changing

Posted on March 8, 2011 

I was looking through some old notes from my coach training and came across something that feels relevant to me in many parts of my life.  Relevant in the sense that it’s good to remember that learning and changing (for myself and others) is a process.

The idea is that there are four fundamental stages in learning…and I’m saying in changing too because changing is learning a new behavior or way of being, right?  Anyway, these are the stages:

Step 1:  Unconscious incompetence.  You don’t even know that there is something you can’t do…ignorance is bliss!   Think of all the things that babies and small children learn.  I think it’s because they can stay in this step and not let their consciousness get in the way.  It’s like they get to skip steps 2 and 3, and move straight to step 4!

Step 2:  Conscious incompetence.  This is the really frustrating one, and the one where I suspect many of us (me included) stop.  This is where you become aware, sometimes painfully, that you can’t do something.  The feeling at this point is often that the “can’t” is an unchanging fact when really it’s just temporary (if you keep trying, that is).   I sometimes find myself making a mental list of all the things I don’t know and decide right then and there that it’s better turn around.

Step 3:  Conscious competence.  This is where is gets a bit easier, but you still have to work really hard.  You have control again!

Step 4:  Unconscious competence.  Finally flow!  This is a great place to be if you’re doing something you love.  It’s the point where you can play and experiment and follow your intuition.

For whatever reason, I find this information comforting.  My first instinct was to just think about all the ways that I’m in the conscious incompetence phase (many!), but I then considered where I have moved past that phase and surprise, surprise, I am very competent…consciously and unconsciously!  And nothing is static, not even these phases.  The minute I think I’ve reached unconscious competence in being a coach or parent or friend, something happens to remind me that, shit, I’m right back to conscious incompetence!

Good thing I’ve become consciously competent at reminding myself that everything changes and that flailing sometimes gives me broader competence in the end.