I’ve been working out with a great trainer lately. He’s determined to help this old crone get strong — really strong.
It’s frustrating, exciting and fun. Frustrating when I can’t do what he asks. Exciting when I start to get the form. And serious fun when I can see how much better and stronger I’m getting.
Conscious Competence Learning Model
It goes like this:
You start out unconscious and incompetent, not knowing much of anything about the skill and perhaps not even knowing why you should master it.
Then, in the second stage, consciously incompetent, you begin to realize that there’s a skill to be mastered and why it matters. Even more important, you realize the limits of your abilities.
Once you see why the skill matters and you accept your own incompetence, you’re set up to learn the skill. That’s conscious competence. That’s the stage where you think really hard about what you’re doing, and you start doing it right.
Finally, you can accomplish the skill without much thinking. That, of course, is unconscious competence!
An Example: Weight Lifting
Here’s what it looks like with my lifting weights.
I started out all wiggly and having trouble with even light weights. Gradually, I realized that getting strong is the key to staying functional and walking straight and being able to manage the rigors of the New York Subway system stairs for years to come. I moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. Still wiggly, but motivated.
A few more training sessions and I started to understand the forms. If I really thought about them, I could lift heavier weights safely with the right muscles. Yup, conscious competence. And though I’m not there yet, in the next stage, perhaps I won’t have to think quite so hard as I heft more weight. I’ll have become unconsciously competent!
Playful Creativity: A Step Beyond Unconscious Competence
But is unconscious competence the pinnacle of the learning cycle? I think not.
The people I know who have fully mastered a skill take it a step further. They are no longer bound by what’s correct. They can play and experiment and create new forms. Their mastery gives them tools they need to open new avenues in their minds. Perhaps the pinnacle of mastering a skill is to know it well enough so that it lets you start to enjoy the fruits of creative play.
Have you ever thought of creativity and playfulness as the height of mastery?
Perhaps that’s the wonder of people like Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso, whose playful art grew from a vast foundation of mastery. Their remarkably creative and playful work has been built atop a mountain of unconscious competence.
What Skills are You Learning?
Are you working on mastering a new skill? Apply this learning model to your process. Where would you put yourself on the competence/consciousness learning model? Is there anything you’ve mastered so well that you have graduated to being creative and playful?
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