Conscious Incompetence

My name is Rob, and I'm incompetent. Be careful. I'm about to nerd out and drop some knowledge on you, so fasten your seat belts.

When learning a new thing, there are four stages that one progresses through to attain mastery of said thing. These four stages of competence are unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence.

The easiest way to illustrate this whole process happening is to relate it to driving a stick-shift.

When your 14 and riding around with your parents you're thinking How hard can it be? All you have to do is mash some pedals and pull a lever every now and again?

Right. How hard could it be? This is the first stage - unconscious incompetence - you don't know that you have no idea what you're talking about.

Then you turn 15, and get your first crack behind the wheel. It doesn't take long to realize it's not as easy as it looks - one stall-out, maybe two.

Shit! I have to use two pedals at the same time?!

Congratulations, you've reached my favorite stage - conscious incompetence. You've realized just how much you suck at this new skill. Not only do you have to use two pedals at once, you also have to watch the road, check your mirrors, make sure the steering wheel is straight, use your turn signals, stay under the speed limit, and a number of other things.

Now after just a little while, you start to get the hang of it. You can start rolling, and shift gears, and navigate turns, but you still can't mess with the radio or even carry on conversations with passengers without crashing into that boy scout helping the little old lady across the road.

This is the third stage - conscious competence. You can apply your new found skill, you just can't do anything else concurrently because it takes all of your cognitive ability.

A few years down the road, without any switch being flipped in your brain, you realize that you don't have to concentrate at all when driving. Shifting gears comes without any thought at all. This second nature, the last stage, is unconscious competence.

So, these stages, everybody goes through them when learning something new. Be it walking, or riding a bike, or driving, playing an instrument, or taking a picture.

Why am I jabbering about all this stuff to you? I'm gonna make a leap and apply this model of learning to an outlook on life in general.

My preferred stage, the one I hope I never leave, is conscious incompetence. To some, it might be counter-intuitive. One might say why wouldn't you want to be further up the ladder? Why not have a mastery of everything you can?

The answer is simple: I enjoy learning too much.

If I'm aware of how much I don't know about a thing, then I improve every single time I set out, and I learn something from every new experience.

Every time I get out my camera, there is something new to try. Sometimes it's lighting, other times it's changing perspective, or dragging the shutter, or playing with white balance. Even if it's something mundane that I'm shooting, there's always the editing process to try new things.

In a more broad sense, if I stop learning and improving I get bored. If I can do just well enough, not have to concentrate, and just go through the motions as if it's second nature, what's the point? Where's the fun? How am I going to become better?

Being at the fourth stage means you can become lackadaisical, and that generally produces garbage. Garbage is something I am not ok with. If I'm having to put forth all of my effort and ability every time, then being careless just doesn't have a spot to fill.

Plus, once you've decided you've mastered something, you can come down with a nasty case of illusory superiority. In a nutshell, this is a cognitive bias that leads to you over-estimate your abilities.

I know that I'm my harshest critic, and that's something I'm almost proud of. I know precisely how much I suck. There is always going to be someone who's better than I am at any given thing, and I strive to learn from those people. The moment I stop learning from those around me is the moment I stop improving, and that's utterly unacceptable.

Working under the assumption that you don't know most things is the best way to learn a thing or two about a thing or three. It's also the reason I'm happy to tell you that I don't know shit about shit.

Why don't you tell me?

Maybe we'll learn something.