Meeting with a sports team last week, we talked about all of the things they needed to master to be champions, both skills specific to their sport and new mental performance skills. We took a step backwards to look at how they learn, helping them become more aware of the process and more empowered to make choices that sped up their learning curve.
In this 2-part series, I will share the four steps through which psychologists have found virtually all learning takes place. We’ll talk about which of the steps is most likely to trip you up and what you can do to ensure a smoother transition toward mastering what you want to learn.
The first step of learning is unconscious incompetence. In this stage, you don’t know what you don’t know. As psychotherapist R. D. Laing describes it, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”
The second step is conscious incompetence. In this stage, you are aware that you don’t know something that you want or need to know. Remember back to how you felt when you were first learning to hit a ball with a bat or learning how to drive. If you’re starting to learn a foreign language, you know your limitations in both vocabulary and grammar. What do you say after “Bonjour,” “Guten Tag,” or “Buenos Dias”?
The third step is conscious competence. In this stage, you experience noticeable improvement. You’re beginning to master the steps. Your awareness that you’re acquiring a skill reinforces your efforts. Perhaps you get an extra boost when others notice your progress and their encouragement motivates you to keep trying.
The fourth step of learning is unconscious competence. What you’ve learned has now become second nature. You don’t even need to think about it anymore. You hop on your bike or grab your keys and jump in the car or you fluently speak another language. You might even laugh when you find yourself making small mistakes.
So which step is most likely to trip you up – and why?
The hardest part of the learning process is step two, conscious incompetence. In this stage, you tend to hold yourself accountable to an unrealistic standard, given your high desire to learn and your low level of expertise. Self-judgment kicks in. And self-judgment is a big impediment to learning.
When your expectations for a certain level of performance fall short, the best thing to do is simply acknowledge that you made an error and then take immediate action to correct it.
Rather, we humans tend to generalize that we will never get it right. We begin to judge ourselves as a failure instead of limiting the setback to the event itself. And we link our self-worth with the outcome of our performance. Evaluating ourselves subjectively and comparing how we feel to what we see of others from the outside deepens the self-judgment. This can quickly deprive us of our personal power, creativity, energy, and the will to keep trying.
This week, focus on one thing you want to master. What stage of learning are you in? Become more aware of how you are judging yourself through your learning process. Consider how attacking yourself for messing up is far more damaging than simply recognizing your mishap and taking action to course correct.
Next week, we’ll talk about the key factors that move you from one stage to the next, and how you can use this four-step learning process to more effortlessly master anything you set your mind to.
Thoughts or questions on how to learn what you want to learn? Ask away!