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?)

LOSING MY GREEN BELT

A teensy break from my “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS” series…maybe.

I was hiking in woods above our home a few weeks ago, and lost my house key. Not too big a deal, under ordinary circumstances–our family seems to lose house keys like a six-year-old loses teeth.

But attached to the key chain was one of my most prized possessions–a little tag made from a section of a belt used to denote rank in the martial arts. In my case, green belt.

When I first took up Tae Kwon Do more than fifteen years ago, it was a struggle for me. I was over forty, I was out of shape, and I was never an athlete to begin with. But I fell in love with my practice and slowly worked my way up through the ranks. I had good instruction, and although I wasn’t fast or especially talented, my techniques were sound.

Green belt level always seemed ideal. It meant you were at that hugely desirable third stage of learning, able to competently demonstrate good technique with some thought. But training is not as rigorous as the next level (red belt). Maybe halfway to black belt–still a long way to go, but with hope it can be achieved.

It’s a good place to be.

Soon after I tested for green belt, I received two presents, one treasured, the other one I wish I could forget.

I was given a key chain with the aforementioned green belt, which I treasured.

And one of my black belt instructors severely damaged my knee while sparring with me.

And no, it wasn’t an accident, it was something a fifth-degree black belt should never have done to anyone outside of a life-or-death situation, let alone a student.

I call it that incident a “present” because my husband calls it “the gift that keeps on giving”. It totally screwed up my leg, and as a consequence, my lower back, my hip and my posture. I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damage, including an ACL replacement, months of physical therapy and other complications. I still struggle with compromised range of motion, swelling and discomfort.

The positive outcome? I left the martial arts, for good, I thought. But a decade later, I came back. First to Thai kickboxing and five years later, a new Tae Kwon Do school.

I’m even older, achy, ouchy, and even more out of shape. But I know now that, though my practice will always be a challenge, I will continue until I simply can’t.

I’ve learned to show up, even when I didn’t want to. I’ve learned to work through frustration and self-doubt. I’ve learned not to measure my progress against others, but to simply try to do a little bit better each time. And sometimes, I’ve learned to just stick it out “just five more minutes.” And another five minutes. And another. Until, miracle of miracles, the two hours is over, and I realize I’ve made it through another whole class.

And that has been a gift. Because I have applied these principles of practice to many other areas of my life, including my art.

The school I’m in now has a more aggressive, sparring-oriented approach, and my progress is even slower. I may never see green belt again.

So my little key chain was my constant reminder of how far I was able to go, once upon a time. A time where I could hold a little personal dream that I might at least achieve that level again, someday.

And now it’s gone.

I remember how upset I was when, trying to provide provenance for my past placement at this new school, I was told that “anyone could buy one of those key chains”, it didn’t prove anything. They’re right, I get that. Even now, I could simply buy another one. But anyone who knows me, knows I would never in a million years do something like that. It would feel like cheating.

I wondered why its loss feels so hard. Today I read an article by Lee Eisenberg, author of Shoptimism. (Okay, it was in today’s Parade Magazine and you can read it here.

I realized my little green belt tag represented something of value to me–of a time when it was physically possible for me to dream of being a black belt someday. Not as a goal, but as a culmination of a process, of dedication to my practice.

And now I have no such dream.

What I do have is the realization that black belt would be wonderful (after the training and the testing–it’s a brutal process.) But the dream of black belt is no longer my goal.

My goal is to simply keep going, and to keep on practicing, and to hope for incremental refinement and improvement. And hopefully, to continue my practice far, far, into my life.

So as painful as losing that memento is, maybe it’s just as well. Maybe it was actually holding me back. Keeping me in the past. Maybe it’s just time to let go of the need to remember stronger, younger days.

Or maybe I just don’t need a reminder anymore. Maybe just being me, and being grateful I can practice at all, is all the blessing I need.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS: A Story Behind the Myths

Let me share a story, one of the stories that got me thinking about these “artist myths”–myths like “Artists are born, not made” and “Only the best artists succeed.”

A few years after I finally started my own art journey, I was invited to do a series of artist presentations in a nearby school system. I was to visit three elementary schools in one day, sharing my artwork with students and telling them about the Ice Age cave art that inspired me.

I met the woman who set up the presentations, Nancy Brown, and she drove me from school to school. She was very pleasant, and we chatted animatedly between “sets” about family and life.

At the first school, I introduced myself at the main office but was met with blank stares. They’d never heard of me. But when I explained, the office person exclaimed, “Oh, you’re going to talk about CAVE ART. We were expecting an artist named ‘Kay Vart’!” She pointed to the chalk board behind her, and sure enough, “Thursday 10:00–Guest Artist Kay Vart” was carefully written there.

At the second school, we arrived a little early. “Oh, goody!” exclaimed Nancy, “We can play in the gym!”

Baffled, I followed her into the school cafeteria/gymnasium to a piano in the far corner. “This room has the most amazing acoustics!” Nancy said happily. She plopped herself on the piano stool, broke into a few chords on the keys, and began to sing.

To this day, I cannot describe that moment adequately.

Her voice was…..incredible. Astonishing. Powerful. Rich. Her voice filled the room with a moving variation on a Shawn Colvin piece.

I kid you not–a thrill ran down my spine.

I stood, entranced, as this perfectly ordinary little woman revealed a talent as big as the ocean. I will never forget it. It moved me to tears.

When she finished, I broke into applause. I told her she had an amazing voice.

“Actually, my voice is quite ordinary,” she said frankly. “I don’t have a natural ‘voice’. But I am passionate about singing, and I have studied and trained my voice to the nth degree.”

I was dumbfounded. Not being knowledgeable about things music, I had assumed only people born with a naturally beautiful voice could sing like that.

I had no concept of training an ordinary voice to be beautiful.

It was an epiphany.

I had seen–I had heard–the power that comes, not from natural talent, not from luck, but from dedication and determination. The power that comes from passion and training, and indomitable spirit.

And love.

I’ve lost track of Nancy. She moved in and out of professional music over the years and eventually left the area.

But I have never forgotten that beautiful moment, when time was suspended for a few precious moments. An empty school gymnasium, a grand old piano and passionate woman with a bold and beautiful voice.

An extraordinarily beautiful….a beautifully ordinary….voice.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #1: Artists Are Born, Not Made

(Reprinted from 2003)

I’ve been invited to do an artist presentation to various schools in my area, including a whole day at a high school in Vermont. I’ll be speaking with six art classes, not only talking about my art but also sharing my process of how I finally became a full-time artist.

I want to share with these students the beliefs that interfered with me taking my own art seriously. Some of these beliefs I held onto tightly well into middle age. A few are still with me even today, but I slowly chip away at them daily.

Let’s look at some of these myths closely. Today’s myth is one of my favorites!

Myth #1: Artists are born, not made.

Fact: A passion for art has to be there, but all other skills are acquired. No one is born knowing how to play the piano.

The first step to becoming an artist is to want to be an artist. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? After all, artists are born, not made….right? You either have talent or you don’t.

Wrong! No one is born knowing how to draw, or how to paint, or how to sculpt or throw a pot, anymore than anyone is born knowing how to play the piano or drive a car. These are all skills. They can be taught, they can be learned. Some people may find the process of acquiring those skills to be exhilarating, others may find the process boring. The people who find the process exhilarating may pick up the skill quickly and easily. Or they may not.

I happen to be a slow learner at some artistic processes. For example, I don’t like to draw. When I put my mind to it, I can draw passably well. But I don’t like sitting quietly and observing something, then using a tool to recreate that image on a two-dimensional surface, such as a piece of paper. So I was called an artist in elementary school because I could draw reasonably well, but secretly thought I was an imposter because I didn’t like drawing. And never progressed very far with it.

Later in life, I discovered I did like modeling clay into pleasing forms. And that I enjoyed a collage-like approach to most of the artwork I made. If you look at my artwork, you’ll almost always see a combination of media, and some sort of shaping and manipulation of form going on. But you’ll hardly ever see a 2-D work. (I do carve my own rubber stamps and make 2-D art from them. But it’s the process of carving the stamp, and then embellishing the surface that fascinates me.)

DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO

So we can fall into two traps by believing the myth that “artists are born, not made”.

One, we can be very good at something we don’t really enjoy, and believe that is our calling. Part of the reason for that is sometimes we learn how to do the things we don’t like, really, really well, so we can get them done and out of the way. But if you don’t enjoy doing something, no matter how good you get at doing it, it will always drain energy from you. So be careful about putting the focus of your energy into doing things you don’t enjoy, if you don’t have to.

And two, we can love doing something we aren’t very skilled at….yet! And that’s actually okay. Being willing to pursue something just because we love it can be very rewarding, if only because we’ll spend more time doing it–and hopefully, get better at it someday. Doing something we love feeds us. It gives us more energy.

So what are we born with? If not an innate ability to draw, then perhaps an attentive eye. We notice that there’s more than one shade of green in that leafy tree, or that the light just before sunset makes everything glow more richly. Perhaps we enjoy observing something closely and like the process of drawing.

Or maybe an attentive ear. Maybe we can remember tunes easily, and enjoy riffing off them every chance we get. Music affects almost all of us, but some people feel it is more than just enjoyable–it is necessary to have it, compose it, play it.

Maybe it’s our hands that have to be busy. Maybe picking up unusual rocks and pieces of driftwood and shells is as much fun for us as shoe-shopping is for our sister. We always have to be touching, hefting an object, enjoying its odd texture or beautiful grain. Maybe having the right mix of color and texture in our living room furniture is more important to us than the brand name.

All of these tendencies and yearnings may be the signs of a budding artist. But unless you follow them, nurture them and feed them, they won’t bloom. (Oh, no…a gardening metaphor!!)

So if you’ve always wanted to be an artist, but felt you didn’t have what it takes, you know better now.

Go sign up for that drawing class, or ceramics class. Learn how to carve a rubber stamp, or how to paint with watercolor. Jump in, and simply enjoy the process of learning a new skill.

Keep at it, and eventually you may find one that gladdens your heart enough to do it every day.

NEW JOURNEY: The Fourth Step

When that “jack-of-all-trades, master at none” becomes all too true, maybe it’s time to give “master of ONE” a try.

When I left Tae Kwon Do a few months ago, after yet another injury, the head instructor asked if I were leaving because my green belt test was coming up. Was I a person who quit when I was challenged too hard?

I was hugely indignant, but I admitted the thought had occurred to me.

Was I a quitter?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what he said, coupled with reading an interesting article, “Mastery Plan” by Kelly Corrigan in the January 2009 issue of Oprah Magazine.

Corrigan reinvented herself in several disciplines–photography, journalist, author, playwright. She was the ultimate student, reveling in steep learning curves that produced spectacular results. Where learning a new discipline causes most students drop out at level one or two, she made it easily to level six or seven.

But never to levels eight, nine or ten.

She wonders if all the excitement of the reinventions, the ‘look at me, I’m good at this!’ moments, learning in leaps and bounds, avoiding the point where learning comes in tiny increments “… just might be a distraction from (her) greatest fear…”

Fear of failure.

She talks about the people who work more slowly, but create something of that lasts, something with true elegance, something of value. She wants that, too. But she’s not sure she can.

Sound familiar?

I wonder if part of my conflict with my art is fear, too–the fear I’ve already done my best work?

It feels too hard…

…Maybe it’s supposed to?

Thinking it might be time to move on to something else…

…So I can avoid the hard work that’s called for now?

It reminds me of being a parent. How hard it is, but exhilarating, especially when your kids are young. You’re exhausted, but you’re also rewarded every day with some new discovery, some new milestone they achieve.

Til they hit the teen years, and everything slows down. And gets really, really hard.

You learn to let go of expectations, and big successes. Your rewards are tinier–“She said thank you!” “He did the dishes the first time I asked!

But you also dig in–because as hard as it is to parent teens, as thankless as the job is, they actually need you more than ever.

You can’t stop being a parent just because it gets really, really hard. We may never know if we were a ‘great’ parent–but our best efforts will be ‘good enough'”. And it’s certainly worth our while to do our best.

Corrigan ends the decision to write a second book, determined to keep working at it til it truly reflects an indomitable spirit.

Which is, oddly, an attribute of black belt. Indomitable spirit.

Last night I talked with my Tae Kwon Do teachers about returning to practice.

It means much more work on my part. My teacher says he believes I’m capable of so much more than I believe I am. He says attitude is everything. I’m doubting myself, and the only person who can turn that around is….me.

Maybe he’s right.

I’m going to find out if I can turn this around. I want to find out.

Last night, I also decided to keep making my fiber art and jewelry. It feels right. For the first time in ages, I heard no negative voices in the wee hours of the night.

I’m not abandoning my new journey. Maybe the hospice will open up something else, and I look forward to exploring that. Something’s calling me there, and I want to find out what it is.

But just as I can study Tae Kwon Do and be a parent, I can explore this new venture and make my art. The art may change, it may not change. But maybe it will simply get even better.

Being a parent is teaching me, and Ms. Corrigan, how to be a more deeply creative person. How to create something of value that will really last, as an artist and a martial artist.

STARTING OVER AGAIN Part Trois

I’ve been responding to the great comments people left when I blogged about leaving the martial arts.

I kept going back to how much I’ve learned from studying Tae Kwon Do and kickboxing. The martial arts helped me be stronger and healthier. It taught me perseverance and focus, and self-discipline.

I’ve been afraid of how far I will fall without it.

Suddenly, I remembered something a friend told me years ago.

I was at another decision crossroads.

I’d been doing a little show, part of a growing arts tour. I never did very well, but each time I did it, I’d sell enough just work to pay for the next thing I needed to do. (I was pretty small potatoes, so we’re not talking much money at all.) I would make a good connection, or learn something new.

On the other hand, my role in that show shrunk more every year. And it really wasn’t a good fit for my work. It took up a lot of time and energy, too.

Should I do it again?

My friend suggested I list the pros and cons of doing the show. When I pointed to how many “intangibles” I’d gotten from the show, she said, “You’ve learned all you can from this situation. You don’t need to keep repeating it to learn the same thing again and again.”

Oh. Yeah. Got it!

Now I’m wondering if the same thing could apply here, too.

Although there could be so much more to learn from these martial arts–Tae Kwon Do, Thai kickboxing–perhaps I don’t need to continue these particular ones. Or to keep learning the same lessons over and over.

A lot to think about….

I’ll keep you posted.

STARTING OVER AGAIN

I’ve been slip-sliding away the last few weeks. Low on energy, low on creativity, low, low, low in mood. Didn’t feel like I had much to say so I didn’t say anything.

I thought I could handle the one-day-at-a-time thing, which then segued into can-I-make-it-through-the-next-15 minutes?? thing, and hit bottom with the stay-in-the-moment thing.

Then I twisted my knee again in tae kwon do class Monday night. I fled the class, limped home, and spent the next two days with my knee iced and elevated.

Dang! And I was just getting the hang of dealing with life in 60-second packages!

It’s mostly my fault. I was cajoled to “work a little harder”, and I should have said no. That’s my responsibility.

But practicing tae kwon do has become more and more about saying no, with less and less to say “yes” to.

I’ve tried to go back to the martial arts half a dozen times now. I just can’t figure out how to practice safely. Looks like I need to explore that tai chi thing again.

I’m feeling overwhelmed with sadness about leaving, but also relieved. I’m beginning to realize how much I’m dreading another major injury.

Most people don’t see what the big deal is. They have no idea how much I’ve enjoyed my practice, nor what I’ve gotten from it.

I’ve learned the very definition of “perseverance” from my studies. Leaving feels like giving up on a very profound level.

It’s taught me so much about life, and about myself. That will be difficult to walk away from.

But if I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll be walking “funny” the rest of my life.

I’ll share my thoughts as I work through this, and I’ll know more after I see my doc after Christmas.

If anyone would like to pass on words of wisdom, I could use them now! I know I have much to be grateful for, but it’s still hard.