When we learn a skill, whether it is sports, music, painting, chess, or something completely different, some experts contend that we go through various stages over time. These stages reflect two things: 1) our increasing sophistication relative to the skill and 2) our metacognitive awareness of that sophistication, or our understanding of our understanding. The Conscious Competence model1 helps to explain the process by which we move through these stages to acquire a skill and an awareness of our level of acquisition2.
Unconscious incompetence is the first stage in the model. In this stage, we don’t know much about the skill, and we don’t know how much we don’t know. In other words, we have only a very rudimentary understanding of what mastery of the skill might entail—and we will eventually find out that understanding is inadequate. We are likely unconsciously incompetent in any arena where we have no experience whatsoever.
Conscious incompetence comes next. In this stage, we have learned enough about the skill to realize how little we know. Our sophistication has increased somewhat, but so has our awareness of what it would take to get to a level of real sophistication. This stage can be uncomfortable to enter, because we realize both how little we knew in the previous stage and how much work it will take to progress to further stages.
Conscious competence is the stage where we find ourselves able to perform the skill increasingly well, but it takes lots of concentration and hard work to do so. We have a better appreciation for what it would take to become an expert, and while our performance relative to the skill continues to improve, we are also aware of the need to work at the skill as well as the fact that we are doing things differently from the way we used to do them.
Unconscious competence is the stage where our ability to perform the skill has become almost second nature. We improve still further at our execution of the skill and have to use less conscious effort to do so.
Each of us can probably identify multiple domains in which we are in each of these stages. Being in the conscious stages can be a bit uncomfortable. But that also provides an opportunity for us to improve our metacognition about learning different skills, and to broaden our horizons in general. Understanding where we are in the stages of skill acquisition can help us become comfortable with the discomfort everyone must feel in order to improve3.