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?)

STARTING OVER AGAIN Part Deux

One door closes, another opens.

I made my decision, and I will leave my Tae Kwon Do practice.

Ironically, I had just submitted a testimonial to the school a few short months ago.

I had an excellent talk with my head instructor. I’ve grown to greatly trust and respect him. He’s seen this coming, though he’d hoped I would find a window of opportunity, a chance to “get ahead of my body” before another injury could set me back.

He said some things about my spirit that made me cry (in a good way.) He urged me to stay until I had my “next step” in place. He reminded me that we all eventually reach this place in our practice, including him, and he will help me figure this next step out.

Less than 24 hours later, I may have found that next step.

It was practically under my nose.

A few months ago, a friend mentioned her brother-in-law is a “world class Tai Chi guy.” I found the contact information she gave me. I took a deep breath and emailed him.

He wrote back a few days later, and agreed to meet with me.

Turns out he “gets” the martial arts aspect of Tai Chi (something that is important to me right now.)

It turns out he is an accomplished martial artist in several disciplines, who did indeed “compete” at an international level for several years.

It turns out he thinks Tai Chi could be a perfect “next step” for me, incorporating strength, balance, focus and safe practice.

It turns out he knows–and respects–my instructor.

And it turns out he lives around the corner from me.

I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and asked what was in my heart:

Did he have any interest in teaching?

It turns out he’s been thinking that teaching would be a way to return to a daily practice, something that’s been hard to fit into his schedule the last few years, as he travels extensively back and forth between two cities.

Just thinking about this, and now writing about it, sends shivers down my spine. (In a good way!)

As we dig our way out of our third snow storm here in New Hampshire, I send these good wishes your way:

May your home be warm and may your power stay on.

May you have food on your table and may you have family and good friends to share it with.

May you find you own tiny miracles to astonish you, as often as you need them.

And if you need one today, take a look at this wonderful little movie, Where the hell is Matt?

I can’t watch it without tearing up. It delights me to my very core to see people of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors and beliefs, join this guy in his silly dance.

And it astonishes me that it came of a “silly whim” of his to quit his job, drop everything, and simply go see what was out in the world.

Thank you, everyone, who wrote to encourage me during this very difficult time. My goal is to catch up on my comments section in the next few days.

And Merry Christmas to all, wherever and however you dance!