How to Tell if You're Incompetent

I've written before about the four stages of competence and I absolutely love this heuristic. It's useful for any aspect of life where we want to improve and get better results. Which brings us to today's question:

How do you tell if you are incompetent at something? 

Knowing whether you suck at something is pretty useful. Especially if you are hoping to get better results, or if other people are depending on you for those results. Before I show you how to tell if you suck at something, here's a quick overview of the four stages of competence:

In anything we try to do, we will progress through four stages of competence. At first we will be unconsciously incompetent (ie. we don't know what we don't know), until at some point we will realize what we don't know and become consciously incompetent. At this point of realization we still suck, but importantly we now know we suck. 

The knowledge of our suckitude is the key to changing our behavior, which over time takes us into conscious competence: where we understand what needs to be done, and know how to do it. And then finally by consciously practicing our new skill over and over we eventually master the skill and become unconsciously competent.  Read more about this progression here. 

So, back to the question of how to tell if you suck at something. In talking about the four stages of competence with Kati a few years ago we realized two important corollaries that answer this question. Here they are:

Corollary 1:  Unconscious Incompetence (aka complete and utter ineptitude) and Unconscious Competence (aka Mastery) feel the same!

This made me laugh out loud when I first realized it. In both stages you think you know what you are doing and you aren't aware of any way you could improve. In both stages you're all like "I got this. No problem". Everyone can think of a time in their life when they thought they knew what they were doing, when in actuality their approach was hopelessly and utterly doomed to failure from moment one.

A good example in my life is when I started Kindara with Kati. I thought it would be no problem to build a successful software product with no experience, quickly get ten thousand users, and then raise tons of VC capital in the first year. In retrospect I had no idea how to do any of those things, and a bunch of the stuff I tried had a zero percent chance of working (ex. running the company rom from our bohemian multi-resident bass-always-bumping artist loft in Brooklyn). Only now that I've moved on the spectrum towards conscious competence can I see how foolish I was. Amazingly, it turns out that sucking, and mastery feel the same. 

 Suckery and mastery feel the same. To tell which stage you're in, look back and see if you can remember feeling the "Agh! I suck" of Conscious Incompetence. If you can, you suck no more. 

Suckery and mastery feel the same. To tell which stage you're in, look back and see if you can remember feeling the "Agh! I suck" of Conscious Incompetence. If you can, you suck no more. 

Which brings us to corollary 2. Given that sucking and mastery feel the same ("I got this"), the only way to differentiate between uselessness and virtuosity is to look back and see if you can remember a time when you sucked.

If for a given pursuit you can remember sucking, and you feel that you no longer suck, you have at least attained conscious competence, meaning that you suck no more!  And so here's the second corollary and the answer to the question of how to tell if you suck at something: 

Corollary 2: If you can't remember a time that you sucked at something, you suck at it now!

So simple and so useful. 

Last week an investor asked me "What makes you think you'll be able to bring a mass-produced consumer hardware product to market given that you haven't done it before?" I thought for a minute and realized the all-too-familiar "I got this" feeling of unconscious in/competence. And so I asked myself the question "Do I remember a time when I sucked at bringing mass-produced consumer hardware products to market?". Since I've never done it before, my answer was a quick "No" and so I came to the useful conclusion that I currently suck at bringing mass produced consumer hardware products to market. Luckily, this wasn't the first time I realized this, and I've surrounded myself with people who have done this before, so I said to the investor "I think we can succeed at this because we've got a team of people who have done this successfully before" and pointed him to our team.  

It turns out to be supremely useful to know what you suck at. When you know you suck, the easiest and fastest way to get out of unconscious incompetence is to read three books on whatever you're trying to do, spend an afternoon reading about it on the internet, or call someone who has done it successfully before and pick their brain for an hour. Then at least you'll realize what you don't know, and have a path towards competence. If you need to be competent at something quickly, I suggest doing all of the above, and also finding a mentor, and/or hiring an expert to work with you. Both will help you quickly progress towards competence and avoid beginner mistakes. 

Conversely, when you don't know you suck, you are massive liability to yourself and to others - especially in a startup, where everyone has to constantly be taking on new tasks. When you think you know how to do something, but actually suck, you waste everyone's time and money and get terrible results (which you probably won't realize are terrible). In this case ignorance isn't bliss. Unconscious incompetence slows things down and can even be dangerous! That's why I think it's important for every human (and especially every human in a startup) to be constantly monitoring the "I got this" feeling - so that we can be vigilant about noticing forks in the road between extended periods of extreme and unconscious suckitude and quick acknowledgement of what we don't know, followed by conscious improvement. 

Remember, if you can't remember a time you sucked at something, you suck at it now.