Hierarchy of Competence

Take a second and think about a skill that you have mastered. It can be anything from making coffee to ice skating. Now think through how you performed that skill when you first tried it. And think about how long it took you to even attempt it in the first place. Now compare your first try with how much mental effort it takes you to perform the skill now.

For all of us there is a natural, even if unnoticed, progression to how much mental effort it takes to master skills.

This is called the Hierarchy of Competence. It is useful not only for measuring where you are when learning something new, but in helping yourself become aware of what you don’t know.

The Four Stages

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    • You don’t understand or know how to do something. At the same time you also don’t even realize you don’t know how to do it. At this stage you may deny that the skill would be useful in any way. Before moving on you must recognize your own incompetence, and the value of the new skill.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    • Now you recognize you don’t know how to do something, BUT you see there is value in this new skill. You also see it would be useful to learn the new skill.
  3. Conscious Competence
    • You have focused on the skill and now understand how to do it. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    • At this level you have worked so much with a skill that it has become “second nature.” You can do it without thinking through the steps. You can likely even do it while doing something else at the same time.

Apply this hierarchy to the skills you are working on in your own life. You can’t jump levels and shoot straight to unconscious competence. There is no magic pill. Simply seeing that there is a natural leveling up process should help you take heart that you are on the right track as long as you keep practicing.

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