How to do ANYTHING in 362,928 Easy Steps

I don’t believe in talent.  At least, not in the way I believe most people think about it.

People talk about talented people like their ability to perform a skill is somehow magically bestowed upon them.  It’s usually followed up by some sort of “I wish I could do that” phrase.  And the truth is, you probably can.

Barring some major biological issue hindering you from performing a skill, chances are that the difference between your ability to complete a task and the “talented” person’s ability to accomplish the same task is usually completely dependent on the amount of time devoted to developing that skill.  It’s that 10,000-hour rule you’ve heard about (thank you Malcolm Gladwell).

The issue with the 10,000-hour rule is that it focuses on the time spent.  While time is definitely a factor in learning, how you spend that time is critically important.  There’s this thing that I’ve come to know as The Adult Learning Model.  It’s also known as The Four Stages of Competence, The Learning Matrix, and a whole bunch of other names.  The point is, there’s a way to learn stuff.

The method, originally conceived by Noel Burch, includes 4 steps: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and Unconscious Competence.  It’s a bit of a tongue twister.  I still stumble over the words when I talk about it, and I’ve been talking about it for three years.  Here’s what it means.

Unconscious Incompetence

This is where you don’t know a damned thing.  The key to this step however, is understanding you don’t know a damn thing.  That “Unconscious” part is the important part.  Because not only do you not understand the topic, but you don’t even understand that you don’t understand the topic.  Unless you actually spend time and effort on a subject, skill, or topic, this is where you live on most things.

It can look and feel a couple of different ways.  It can be everything from complete obliviousness to a cursory understanding, leading you to believe you already understand the topic. (Hey, there’s that Dunning-Kruger Effect again!)  

When you’re a kid, driving seems pretty simple.  You sit in the driver’s seat, put the key in, push the pedals, turn the wheel and go.  What’s the big deal?

Conscious Incompetence

This is where most people give up.  If you really start looking at just about any subject deeply, you start to understand just how complicated shit can be.  There are almost no simple answers to any question worth asking or any skill worth developing.  Almost everything can be, and needs to be, broken down a bit, so you can begin to see what’s really going on.

This can be scary, difficult and overwhelming.  It’s at this point in the process people will usually decide if they even think something is worth pursuing.

I had a friend that started Driver’s Ed.  After his first lesson he sat down with us and said, “This is bullshit!  They want you to drive the car, look at your mirrors, pay attention to the speed limit, and the traffic and people moving around you, ALL AT THE SAME TIME!!!!  How would anyone ever do that?”  That’s conscious incompetence!

Conscious Competence

This is when you start to get it.  You see all the little pieces that have to be put together, and you are able to do so, with effort.  You’ve got your checklists or your notebook, and when you attempt the task or skill, you are able to do so—maybe not perfectly, but you can get the job done.

This is your driving test.  You’re behind the wheel, you know how to operate the vehicle, you know all the things to look out for, and you know all the rules, but you’ll make sure to concentrate on all of those things so that you pass your test.

Unconscious Competence

Welcome to expert level.  This is where you understand your topic so well that you don’t even need to think about it to do it.  The topic is so ingrained in you that sometimes you will find yourself performing the skill, or working on a subject, and realize you’ve been thinking about something else the entire time, but still managed to complete the task.

Ever been driving to somewhere familiar, get there, and realize you don’t remember driving there at all?  It freaks you out the first couple of times.  There are studies on this stuff that show the brain actually separates tasks at this point, allowing your unconscious mind to perform the task at hand (driving) and your conscious mind to focus on something completely different.  This is NOT the same as distracted driving.  You are actually aware of both things simultaneously.  You’ll make lane changes, stop for red lights, and avoid pedestrians, but your mind doesn’t store the information, because that function is busy with something else.  

So here’s where I add my own little twist to the concept.  It seems to me that if you start to use this model as a baseline for learning new skills or topics, you’ll come to find that each one of the steps contains all four steps.  This idea can be a little convoluted, and if there’s any truth in it at all, I’m probably still in Unconscious Incompetence about it, but here’s the basic idea, just using step one.

So in order to go from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence you have to:

  • Become aware of the existence of a topic or skill.  (Unconscious Incompetence)
  • Attempt to complete the skill or use knowledge of a topic. (Conscious Incompetence)
  • Begin to recognize the components of the skill or topic. (Conscious Competence)
  • Decide the topic or skill is worth pursuing.  (Unconscious Competence)

This type of fractal breakdown of the learning model continues through the next four steps as well.  Where it starts to get really interesting is when you start to find independent skills that work together.  Then you get to take the fractal nature of this model even further, but I think for now we’ve covered the basics.

Please feel free to share, comment, question, or educate me further on anything I’ve said here, and let me know if you find any of this stuff useful.  After all, I’m still learning.  😀

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