With learning any kind of new skill, we go through four stages of competence. What might feel like a continuous struggle can in fact be broken down into those very clearly defined steps, thus allowing you to see the bigger picture more clearly (and helping you to persevere, even if you feel like you are not making any progress).

Knowing and understanding the process of learning is crucial for acquiring new skills. If you try to reach a high level of competence as quickly as possible and want to cut your learning curve, you have to understand how learning actually works and where in this process you are. With this article I hope to demystify the process, so that you know in which of the four stages of competence you are at any time.

The four stages of competence: a short break-down

The four stages of competence were originally described in the Gordon Method, a guideline to effective communication and conflict resolution developed by the psychologist Thomas Gordon. It has since been established as useful guideline for breaking down the process of learning in both  popular science and real-life application. The main idea is that each person goes through different stages of awareness when acquiring a new skill. We don’t even know how little we know at the very beginning (unconscious incompetence), but as we keep training we reach higher and higher levels of competence, until we are so skilful that we don’t even think about the process anymore (unconscious competence).

The four stages of competence overlap with several other popular psychology concepts, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Johari window (finding your blind spot and knowing what you don’t know) or the Dreyfuss model of skill acquisition.

four stages of competence, four levels of competence, competence

Stage one: unconscious incompetence

This is the stage you first start out in when learning a new skill. You don’t recognise the lack of your skill and might at first deny the usefulness of the skill altogether. You are not concerned with your incompetence, since it plays no significant role in your life. The reality you created for yourself doesn’t put high value on that particular skill. Often times people block out that this skill even exists so they don’t have to face their incompetence. In order to overcome this mind block and move on to the next stage of learning, you have to admit your incompetence to yourself and accept the value that the skill would have to you.

Stage two: conscious incompetence

Once you realised your incompetence and are determined to change it, you dive deeper into the topic. But the more you learn, the more you find out just how incompetent you are. You keep discovering new resources, concepts and support skills that are necessary in order to advance. You are still not skilled, but at least gain an overview of what it takes to become skilled. That way you try to find your own path and move forward through trial and error. The importance of making mistakes in this stage cannot be overstated! Even though you are incompetent (and you know it), it is crucial to take action anyway, fail, and learn from those fuck-ups.

four stages of learning, four stages of competence, socrates

Stage three: conscious competence

By now you have reached a certain level of skill. You are doing many things right, but you still have to concentrate hard on the process to get the desired results. You have broken down the process and can execute the needed steps, but you haven’t internalised them yet. Instead, you are aware of what you are doing and why at any time. Your competence is there, but it is very conscious.

Stage four: unconscious competence

This is the highest of the four levels of competence. At this stage, the skill has been fully mastered and you have had so much training that it doesn’t take any effort anymore to execute. When you do execute it, you aren’t aware of the different steps that are needed in order to succeed. They have been so internalised that you can focus on other things while using that skill. To outsiders it might seem almost miraculous how you can perform your skill without paying attention to it. At this point, you can teach the skill to others and show them how to advance through the four stages of competence as well.

How to get the most out of the four stages of competence

So how do you utilise this framework most effectively? In my opinion the key is to be fully aware of each of the stages you will go through and embrace them. They all have their unique and important purpose in the process and should not tried to be cut short or be skipped altogether. Instead, know what to focus on in each stage. Try to break down the skill into as many steps as possible and understand them in detail. Don’t be superficial, really try to get to the core of what it means to master that skill. This is a tedious process that takes time, dedication and a lot of struggle, but the deeper you dive into it, the more proficient you will be in the end. See the four stages of competence as your road map on the path to mastery.