fearless learning 3: The 4 stages of learning

While most of us would assume that there is one way to learn something – in a class, from a book, lecture, seminar, etc. – there are actually what are known as The Four Stages of Learning, as represented in the diagram below:

Let me just walk you through a quick tour of each stage:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

This stage is known as the “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know” phase. According to Digitec Interactive, a company specializing in eLearning and web application development, “In this stage, the learner does not have a skill or knowledge set yet. They do not see any reason to learn it because they don’t consider it a need. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

For example, let’s say that you consider yourself a fairly social media savvy person and yet you haven’t a clue what this whole “Pinterest business is”. You could care less about it, tune out when you hear your friends or colleagues mention it, zone out when you see that little red and white “P” online, etc.

Ah, the joys of innocence…

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

In our next stage of learning, you become conscious of your incompetence. In other words, “You know that you don’t know how to do something and it bothers you.” Perhaps you’ve just been promoted to the marketing department at work and your boss is very active on Pinterest and expects you to be as well. Suddenly, you’re acutely aware that this skill set is lacking and the fact that you are bothered by it will motivate you to do something about.

This brings us to our next phase:

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

In Stage 3: Conscious Competence, you finally take the plunge and learn this damn Pinterest business. You get up to speed, take a tour, start with a few boards, learn how easy it is, get a little hooked on the novelty of it and are suddenly “conscious” of your “competence.” In other words, you know that you know how to do something and it takes effort. BE WARNED! this is usually the phase where people get stuck because it takes some serious cognitive effort on your part. As humans we hate to think, and a lot of times when we do think about something it ruins the activity especially if it’s a natural one.

Try thinking about breathing or thinking about blinking. You’ll see that very soon it will be difficult to breathe or blink for that matter.

However if you want to learn something new this is a necessary pain period.

When I used to practice becoming a better conversationalist I would have to think about the exact aspect of conversational skills that I was working on instead of just listening and being present in the conversation. This would make it very difficult to listen and hold a conversation however with time after practicing a bit my conversational skills improved a lot to the point where everything flowed naturally. Which brings us to the final phase of learning.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

Finally, you are in Stage 4 of learning, known as “Unconscious Competence.” Using our Pinterest example, after a week/month or two, you are not only highly proficient but “pinning” is second nature to you. You can do it quickly, efficiently and regularly, with great success and proficiency. In this stage you know how to do something and don’t really have to think about doing it while you do it. In short, it’s second nature.

Obviously, this isn’t just about Pinterest. (And no, I don’t have stock in the company) You could be learning anything – how to ride a bike, tie a shoelace, drive a car, un-strap a girl’s bra for the first time, write code, solve a mathematical equation, etc. – and you can apply these four stages of learning to it.


(there’s actually a fifth phase called unconscious conscious competence where you are so proficient and aware of what is needed for a specific skill set that you are able to teach it to others. However we’re not gonna delve into that here)