The Four Stages of Learning Anything on Your Path to Self-Actualization

by Scott Jeffrey

In order to develop, we must first become conscious of our incompetence in whatever areas we desire growth.

When we first become aware of what we’re not good at—for example, managing our finances if we’re in debt, playing an instrument if we never have, or working with our repressed emotions—it tends to bring up feelings of weakness and inadequacy.

And we don’t like those feelings.

An awareness of our incompetence is a very normal part of any process of learning and development.

The Four Stages of Learning

Let’s take a closer look at each of the four stages of learning.

When you know what’s ahead of you, you can avoid getting hijacked by discouragement. Instead, you muster the will to move forward and follow through.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

First is the stage of unconscious incompetence where we don’t know the degree of our incompetence.

You don’t know how awkward it’s going to feel playing the guitar until you pick one up and try to strum a chord.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

The next stage is conscious incompetence. Our minds are now aware of the fact that we are at the beginning of a long learning curve.

It is this stage that brings up feelings of weakness and inadequacy, feelings that our egos would like to avoid.

This stage of learning requires commitment, a personal decision to follow through.

While you may have experienced a burst of excitement and enthusiasm when you began stage 1, that initial energy tends to dissipate in stage 2.

And this is where many of us bail out of the development process. This step requires self-compassion, discipline (the cultivation of will), and hard work.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

If you’ve committed yourself to consistent practice with devotion, patience, and friendliness toward yourself, you manage your way through the many plateaus and extended periods of hard work (practice) that occur in the learning process.

To reach this stage, you must first welcome or at least work through the uncomfortable feelings that accompany conscious incompetence.

Now, however, you have observed your progress. Your confidence has grown. You feel somewhat competent in your ability.

Remembering where you once were, you can marvel at your improvements. You still need to focus intently on the object of learning (perhaps a new skill), but your development is undeniable.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

The real magic occurs at this final stage of alchemical transformation.

From total darkness, awkwardness, discomfort, and frustration experienced in stages 1 and 2, through the herculean efforts of consistent practice in stage 3, emerges a new level of being.

With unconscious competence, a conscious focus is no longer needed to perform a skill effortlessly. This automatic response allows us to enter an absorbed, thoughtless state, often called being “in the zone” or “in the flow.”

We witness it in great athletes, musicians, orators, and anyone who walks the path of self-mastery.

How to Go From Conscious Competence to Unconscious Competence

But this isn’t the whole story. There’s an unexpressed assumption in the theory behind these four stages of learning.

The assumption is that to go from conscious competence to unconscious competence, you have to put forth a lot of effort and “train hard.”

This assumption appears valid because top performers tend to train and practice more than their contemporaries. (All-stars like Michael Jordan in basketball and Tiger Woods in golf are prime examples.)

But anyone who excels at any skill knows there’s a flaw in this learning theory. Unconscious competence comes not through effort, but through a kind of “giving up.” You don’t stop playing the guitar, but you do stop trying to play C chord perfectly. You don’t stop shooting free throws, but you no longer aim the basketball at the hoop.

It’s actually when you reach the point where you think you’re never going to make it, that the transformation unfolds. It’s not by a virtue will, but by allowing or letting go that mastery is achieved.

Realizing Peak Experiences

These four stages of learning can be applied to virtually any area of life: driving, cooking, sports, martial arts, meditating, drawing, parenting, and so on.

And for those willing to embrace these stages of learning, the transformative state of unconscious competence is available to all.

Abraham Maslow spent lots of time studying peak experiences, a euphoric state of harmony and interconnectedness, a selfless state of total absorption often followed by feelings of love, joy, and wholeness.1Maslow, Abraham. Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences.

Here’s the best part: while everyone has access to these peak experiences at various times of our lives, Maslow found that self-actualizing individuals had significantly more of them.

It seems our biology favors the prepared souls who walk the path to self-mastery.

What good news!

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