THE FOUR STAGES OF COMPETENCY: What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

(This article was originally published on my blog at Radio Userland back in January, 2004. Fourteen years later, I still find it a valuable, and timely, reminder.)
WHO KNEW EXERCISE COULD BE SO EDUCATIONAL??    

 

My kickboxing instructor had a cool handout for us a few weeks ago.  It was entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”.  It was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts.  It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION:  Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION:  Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION:  Consciously competent

IDENTITY:  Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us.  Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts, it’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential.  I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay.  I was fearless!

I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot.  It was great!  It was easy!  I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“.  I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success.  Besides, it was so much fun!  I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next.  The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.  And nothing happened.  I mean, nothing right happened.

I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me.  I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay.  I threw it aside and tried another ball.  Same thing.

Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass.  What a disaster!  I tried all through class, and went home discouraged.

All my throwing efforts in the next few classes ended up the same way, and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such.  But I was totally discouraged.

I had (unknowingly) entered the dreaded second stage: “Consciously incompetent“.  I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn.  The ratio looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself.  Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this.  No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better.  You can’t seem to do anything right.  Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right.  It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Here was the gamechanger/aha moment/blast of insight for me:

Most people quit at this stage. 

They become convinced they are never going to get it. They just aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that.  They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves.  (That’s me, anyway.)

They may complain, or clam up.  They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them.  I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves.  “I’m just not good at math.”  “I’m just not very graceful.”  “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you perservere, you will come to the next stage:  Consciously competent.  It may take a long time, but you will get there.  You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill.

You can do it, but you have to think about it.  You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening.  You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t.  You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake.  (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

And as anyone who has ever mastered a skill knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage: Unconsciously competent.  The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.  You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU.  

You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or whatever.  In fact, you may not even remember NOT knowing that skill.  Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike?  Or does it feel like you’ve always known?  Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant?  Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” Or, “What if I can’t learn to read??!!”

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage.

It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel.  In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are never really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes.  That becomes our determination.

But what about when we choose to make those changes?

I’ve been thinking about how important it is to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide) or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination.  Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path? Then we hit that second stage and bagged out?

What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve?  How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina.  I could barely do one push-up anymore.  But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty.  (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it. My turning point? It no longer matter if didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist.

“Good” didn’t matter anymore.  I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try.  And keep trying.  When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day.  The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process.

Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process.

And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer.  You may surprise yourself…..!

(I kept progressing, even returning to Taekwondo, for several more years. But the injuries I incurred in the process eventually forced me out. You can’t kick a bag with a knee replacement. But this lesson has stayed with me for over 14 years, and counting.)

(T’ai Chi, anyone?)

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