The Hierarchy of Competence: The Stages of Mastering Anything

The Hierarchy of Competence: The Stages of Mastering Anything

The Hierarchy of Competence has been passed down for decades being used by hundreds, if not thousands, of different teachers and coaches to illustrate a great theory in human psychology. As it is so simple, the most valuable pieces of knowledge are. It sets out to demonstrate the levels we achieve in our pursuit to obtain new knowledge or a new skill. 

In any goal, career, or pursuit, it is vital to understand where you lie on this visual. 

History and Context

The four stages of competence have been widely accepted and used since its creation in 1969. It was coined by Martin M. Broadwell as “the four levels of teaching”, and has, since then, been used in a variety of books, training models,  and courses. 

Just in case you haven’t heard of this model already, here is an analysis of each step along the path to mastering anything.

1) Unconscious Incompetence

You don’t know what you don’t know. In the very beginning of any pursuit, there comes a time when you don’t even know what you have to learn. You might not even understand that you have a deficit in knowledge that needs to be filled. Most often, this stage is chalked up to ignorance. 

The difficult part about this stage is that we don’t often recognize the gap in our knowledge. Learning what we need to learn is the most difficult stage in any pursuit. Even if we are outwardly seeking knowledge, there can still be bodies of information that we are oblivious to the existence of. 

Unconscious incompetence is the stage when a child is wearing velcro shoes and doesn’t even realize that he has to learn how to tie adult shoes soon. He thinks he can coast on his current knowledge of strap on shoes. He thinks, “It’s as easy as that!”. He doesn’t realize that velcro shoes go out of fashion very quickly, and he will have to learn how to tie his shoes soon.

2) Conscious Incompetence

You know what you don’t know. At this stage, one begins to realize that there is a gap between their current knowledge and the knowledge they need to learn. They begin to understand the value of learning something new.

While you are learning at this stage, you can expect many mistakes. In this stage, most things are learned by trial and error. While you can do as much research as you can, you must begin to experience as well.

This stage is definitely the most daunting for the individual. They realize that there is a lot of learning and a long way to go. They see the gap from where they are and where they need to be, and of their mind is wrapping around the effort that it is going to take to get there. This is when it is important to have the confidence to take the first step. Looking at a 1000 step staircase can seem intimidating, but all it takes is one step at a time. 

This would be when the child starts to see adults with different kinds of shoes, and no one is wearing velcro anymore. The child begins to understand that he must learn how to tie shoes like an adult.

3) Conscious Competence

You know what you know, but it takes effort. At this stage, you have enough experience under your belt to understand the process and know what you’re doing. Nonetheless, it still takes effort and concentration to execute the new skill properly. You may not be perfect, but you find yourself making significantly fewer mistakes than you were in the beginning.

At this stage, the child has learned the process required for tying your shoelaces. However, while he ties them he must use his focus and concentration to do it right. He may mess up, but he is able to start over or correct his mistakes with much greater efficiency.

4) Unconscious Competence

This is the final stage in the process. At this stage, you know what you know, and it is effortless to perform. You know the new information like the back of your hand. You can perform the new skill without thinking about it, from muscle memory.

Like most of us today, we don’t really have to think about tying our shoes. We just do it. It takes a different amount of time to get to this stage for different types of tasks. This is the stage of mastery.

Red Light Green Light

One last little piece of information that pairs well with this model. Many of us, especially if you are reading this, love learning new things and new skills. Many of us are guilty of tacking on so many new things at once and burning out. When we try to teach ourselves so many new habits all at once, we set ourselves up for failure. This is why I’d like to introduce the Red Light Green Light method.

In the Red Light Green Light method, you only focus on a few new skills to develop at a time. You may choose to just develop one to increase your odds of success. This is the normal process:

Green Light

You are learning that there is a lot of habits, skills, and information that you want to start learning as soon as possible. Rather than taking on all of them at once, you take on a reasonable amount that you can manage. After you have decided which new pursuits to take into the next stage…

Red Light

You no longer focus on any other skills to develop besides the ones you have chosen. You focus on and learn as much as you can about your chosen pursuits. You develop these pursuits all the way to unconscious competence. You make these new skills and knowledge second nature to you. Only after these skills are fully ingrained into your psyche…

Green Light

You may begin to take on new skills and pursuits. Repeat the process.

The goal is to not overload yourself with too many ambitious goals. I am not saying to abandon them completely. I am saying to recognize your abilities for maximum efficiency and comprehension. Save goals for later dates. The less you take on at one time, the more likely you are to succeed at the ones that you focus on.

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