Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


The Four Stages of Learning

Whenever you learn a new skill, you go through four stages of learning. It’s as true with the life skills I discuss as it is with any other. Keeping these stages in mind will help you avoid frustration as you progress along the path.

The four stages are:

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence.

Here’s what each stage is about...

Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage, a person is incompetent at a skill but isn’t aware that they lack it because they don’t know it exists. As an example, imagine a child who had only seen shoes with Velcro closures. They are incompetent at tying shoelaces, but aren’t aware of it because they’re never seen them.

Conscious Incompetence

Once the person knows they lack a skill, they are still incompetent, but now they know. The child has seen shoes with laces and realizes that they don’t know how to tie them. It’s at this stage that learning begins. 

Someone shows the child how to tie a shoelace and they begin practicing.  At first they won’t be very good at it. They’re still incompetent – consciously incompetent. 

This phase lasts for a variable amount of time depending on the difficulty of the skill as well the abilities and diligence of the person learning it.

Conscious Competence

Gradually, the student improves and eventually becomes competent at the task. However, at first performing competently requires their full attention.  This is the stage of conscious competence. 

The child can tie their shoe quite well, but they need to focus to do it.  Eventually, they arrive at the last stage…

Unconscious Competence

This is the phase of most adults with regards to tying shoelaces – they do it quite well without ever having to think about it. In this phase a person performs competently automatically.

There are many skills we pick up and become unconsciously competent at.  Anyone who’s learned to drive a standard transmission remembers their first lurching starts. Over time, that complex skill became automatic.

Skills you work on now may be the same way. At first they’ll seem difficult.  They’ll require your full attention. You won’t be very good at them. You’ll feel awkward.

Remember, this phase is normal. Gradually and steadily you’ll improve. Before long, what was a foreign skill will be second nature. Just like tying a shoe.

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