The 4 Stages of Competence

Here's a Heuristic that I learned last year that has helped me understand my progress as an entrepreneur, and as a human being: When learning any new skill (or way of being), everyone progresses through the following 4 stages:

At first,                  

Unconscious Incompetence

Followed by:          

Conscious Incompetence

Followed by:          

Conscious Competence

Until finally:         

Unconscious Competence


Here's how this works. When you first start out at any activity you are in stage 1:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

In this stage you will believe that you know what you are doing. You will march confidently (even cockily) forward only to find out later that what you thought was the path towards accomplishing your goals was actually the path off the cliff.  What you thought was the absolute best way to accomplish your goals was, in reality, totally hopeless and doomed to fail!

The amusing thing about this stage is that it feels great (ignorance is bliss) but produces horrible results. And worse, this stage can last indefinitely as long as you never realize your incompetence (think George W. Bush).

Thankfully, most of us will realize sooner or later that we're not getting the results we're after. At the point of this realization, we have two choices, blame external factors, or take personal responsibility.

Blaming external factors feels better and is easier, but unfortunately it will keep us unconsciously incompetent.  The key to getting beyond unconscious incompetence is to look inward and humbly accept that we don't know what the hell we are doing!

Personal Example: Not too long ago I read a list of thing VC's and investors never want to hear in pitches and realized I had been guilty of more than a few of them over the last two years. I thought I knew what I was doing at the time, but looking back I was unconsciously incompetent! Ouch.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence.

Once you realize you suck, you transition into phase 2: conscious incompetence. This is the most uncomfortable stage and I think the longest one as well, but at least when you reach Stage 2, you know you suck, and are no longer going around making an ass of yourself.

In this stage the bliss of ignorance fades and you realize that you have no idea how to do whatever it is you are trying to do. While it feels horrible, it is also liberating because being conscious of your incompetence is the necessary fist step to overcoming it and getting competent at something.

This is where the real work of learning and improving begins. In my experience, getting from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence takes a long time.

While you may never become conscious of your incompetence, once you get to Stage 2, you are likely to progress to Stage 3 (transform incompetence into competence) as long as you

  1. don't give up, and
  2. are willing to consistently apply sufficient effort.

These conditions are non-trivial, because most people either give up or don't apply the effort necessary to achieve competence. As a result many people remain indefinitely in conscious incompetence (or worse: conveniently forget that they're incompetent and go back to unconscious incompetence).

If you ARE willing to keep going and apply consistent and sufficient effort in addressing incompetence, it will transform over time into competence.

To do this efficiently requires focus and resilience: Often you won't know how to turn our incompetence into competence. Not everything you try will work and you will likely have to try a few things and go down some dead ends before you get the first sniffs of competence.

Personal Example Con't: When I read over the list of things VC's never want to hear in a pitch, I realized I didn't know what I was doing, and my pitching skills moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. I realized how much I didn't know! Since then it's been a hard-scrabble effort to practice, fail, try again, and practice some more to turn Kindara and our pitch into a fundable package.

Stage 3 Conscious Competence.

After enough application and practice, if you keep going, you will eventually get to stage 3: Conscious Competence. This is the stage where you finally know what you are doing. Thank god.

Through practice, the first whiffs of competence will get stronger and more familiar and your confidence will start to build. You will start to string a couple successes together and the thought "I can do this!" will pop into your head. People will start to congratulate you on your progress.

Depending on the activity, it could take an hour, a week, a month, a year, or a decade to turn Conscious Incompetence into Conscious Competence.

One good way to know you've entered Stage 3 is that people will start to ask you for advice. And you will generally know what advice to give. In this stage you have learned the lessons and produced the results that other people are hoping to produce in this area. Welcome to the club of the competent.

Personal Example: Thankfully, after two years of learning entrepreneurship I’m getting whiffs of competence in pitching investors. We've got nearly half our seed round committed already and I'm confident we'll close the rest soon.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence (aka Mastery)

Finally, in this stage you become so expert at something that you don't even need to think about it to get excellent results. This is the ultimate goal of any pursuit, as demonstrated by professional athletes, Richard Branson, and zen masters.

Through consciously practicing being competent in stage 3, your competence will slowly become unconscious: less and less conscious effort will be required to get excellent results. This is "The Zone" where you are so at one with your activity that excellent results are more about who you’re being than what you’re doing.

The crazy (and funny) thing about this stage is that it feels the same as Stage 1! The way to tell them apart is to look at your results.

Personal Example: I have yet to reach this stage in my entrepreneurial career, but I have reached it in Ultimate Frisbee. One of the reasons I love playing so much is that I don't need to think very much on the field. The experience is more like flowing energy: loose and free and fun. One day I'll get there in business.

And those are the four stages of competence. I love this heuristic because it gives me a way to understand my progress in whatever I set out to achieve.

Bring on the comments! I'd love to hear your thoughts and if you've ever experienced this progression.

Inner GameWill Sacks