I was having a recent conversation with one of my coaches concerning different ‘types’ of athletes and the rates and stages of learning. We were discussing how certain athletes can progress quickly to competency, it almost seems effortless for them, while others ‘trudge through the mud’. Rapid skill acquisition has obvious benefits for athletics but it is helpful in any arena, there are ‘super-learners’ everywhere. As easy as it may seem for these individuals there is a distinct progression everyone undergoes and the results are replicable. Let’s first take a look at the stages of progression.

The stages of competency can be illustrated in a variety of different ways: vertical ladder, gradual steps, ‘checkmark’ pattern. Regardless, the idea that each step is a progression along the journey remains the same. (I think the “Nike Swoosh” is the most accurate representation, there is undoubtedly a high to being blissfully ignorant. The initial realization that we are not the superstar we thought can be crushing, no one likes choking on humble pie.)

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Stages of Competency

1. Unconscious Incompetence – This is a state of unknowing, you have no idea that you lack a skill or ability or if that skill is even necessary. The potential ‘state of ignorance bliss’.

2. Conscious Incompetence – You now understand the that you are lacking a skill or ability but have no understanding of how to perform it or shore up your deficit.

3. Conscious Competence – You now possess the ability to perform the skill however it requires extreme focus. The process is difficult and broken in its execution.

4. Unconscious Competence – You have ingrained the skillfully and it can be performed with little or no thought. This is the first significant step towards mastery.


Let’s use a personal example to help illustrate. Rock Climbing. Something, that until a month ago, had no meaning whatsoever, it was nothing more than an activity I had participated in 2 decades ago with my school class. That was the last time I had even contemplated what it would be like to climb. However, in an attempt to add some variety, and because I foolishly assumed I would possess spiderman-esque skills, I suggested we head to a local indoor climbing gym for a date night.

We showed up, strapped into our harnesses, velcro’d our shoes and after a quick lesson stepped up to the wall. I believed, without a shred of doubt, I was about to scale its 30 feet without breaking a sweat. (At this point I am living comfortably in ‘Unconscious Incompetence’, I have no idea that some skill is even necessary.)

I climbed poorly, fell more often than not, and was forced to admit that I was not the naturally blessed rock climber I assumed, plus, I had a glaring obvious skill deficit. (I immediately entered the second stage, ‘Conscious Incompetence’. I now understand I am deficient but also lack knowledge on how to improve.)

The rock climbing gods must have smiled on me because a 15-year ‘veteran of the wall’ came over and launched into a “Rock Climbing 101: How to Suck less for Dummies” seminar. The next 10 minutes consisted of “Opposing Anchors”, “Flagging”, “Clamps and Crimps”. I followed that short lesson with a few hours of Youtube, “rock climbing for beginners”, and headed back to the gym. I’ve managed to claw my way into some semblance of the third stage (‘Conscious Competence’). I possess a very amateur understanding of what skills I need to develop and can begin working to improve them. My progress is slow and requires extreme focus. In my return trips to the gym, I have accumulated 6 of my 10000 hours towards mastery. (I may never achieve the fourth stage (Unconscious Competence). It requires the ability to perform the skill without thought, a feat only achieved through hours of practice.)

My rock climbing competency follows the same progression as every other skill in my life, though labeling the stages has very little to do with advancing on the wall. What type of attitude and approach we bring to each stage indicates how effectively and quickly we progress.

Scaling the Ladder

There are obvious benefits to climbing the competency ladder quickly, it lets us seamlessly incorporate the skill into our life, freeing up precious energy to focus on new development. The addition of each new skill should make us more effective and valuable in our chosen endeavors. In business, it could increase your leverage within the company or improve external dealings. In the case of rock climbing, learning new skills will boost my overall proficiency, which in turn improves my self-esteem related to the activity. That newfound confidence will seep into my everyday life and improve my overall well being. In a nutshell, it feels good to learn things.

Each category has a distinct set of challenges and is best approached with a specific mindset, they are broken down below with focus placed on the most important skill in each category.

Unconscious Incompetence

Self-awareness – This is not a suggestion to sit in a chair and try to create a list of every skill we lack. Knowing the inner workings of an airplane engine is unlikely to have relevance outside of engineering and probably a waste of time. Instead, we should aim to vet the areas of our life that are important, try to detect specific problems that occur regularly and perhaps in doing so discover an unidentified ‘missing skill’. Approach all actions with a heightened awareness, ignoring an issue or pretending it lacks importance is an invitation for future failure and early identification can prevent it becoming a liability.

Conscious Incompetence

Exploration – The key to navigating conscious incompetence is exploration, a childlike desire to search for learning. It is fantastic that we recognize our deficit and are interested in learning but no one will hand us the information. We must hunt it down, searching for anything that could be valuable and embracing all new suggestions. As we progress we can filter out the items that lack meaning but at this point, it is best to absorb everything.

Conscious Competence

Grit – “Courage and Resolve, the strength of character” As a child, we learn to crawl by falling, we stand back up after every tumble undeterred by the ‘failure’ and try again. We are unconcerned with the opinion of others, it is actually laughable to think of judging a baby on their ability to walk. Yet, as we age, our outlook shifts and we begin to fear the opinions of our peers, creating a need for Grit. It is unlikely that we will be able to complete dismiss the opinions of our others, instead, we can cultivate resistance. Learning anything new is frustrating, the failures far outweigh the successes and unless we display grit and plow forward despite setbacks, we will never achieve mastery.

Unconscious Competence

Self- awareness – It is funny that as we approach mastery, the definition of the top of the ladder, the skill that becomes most important is the same skill that started the journey. There is a saying in the martial arts community that a “Black belt is where the learning begins”. Those at the highest level are separated by inches not miles which makes it imperative that we are aware of each sub-skill and efficient in every step of the process. Self-awareness saves us from false confidence and helps avoid negligence.

Competency is not easy, it takes time, effort and sacrifice regardless of the skill. We are not pretending it will be a short journey but hopefully these small shifts in mindset will help you maximize your development and avoid stagnation. Enjoy the struggle, celebrate the accomplishments and be forever chasing improvement.

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