The four stages of skill-learning

The four stages of skill-learning

by Muhaimin X 27 Feb 2020

When it comes to being better version of ourselves, most of us find ourselves either working to improve upon a particular aspect of our lives or striving to incorporate something new into it. Regardless of what form it might take, its prospects ultimately hinge on our ability to express skill with it. Far be it from a simple matter of either “having it” or not, skill is actually acquired through four distinct phases.


1. Unconscious incompetence

This is where we’re at our most raw and unpolished state. A decent analogy would be that of a baby learning to walk: everything seems clumsy and foreign. During this stage, it’s common to be intimidated by the mere prospects of learning the fundamentals. It’s not just about learning the basics of the skill itself; it’s also finding where you fit in this new environment. Having a guiding hand like a coach can be pivotal at this stage as it allows you to safely transition into the next stage.


2. Conscious incompetence

During this phase, you'll have a fair amount of self-doubt creeping in because you’ve realised that it takes a significant amount of time and effort to achieve some semblance of competence. The only difference between unconscious and conscious incompetence is that the mind is now fully aware of the lack of skill at hand. This can be slightly uncomfortable both physically and mentally, and can be taxing on the ego, as you now realise how far off the mark you really were. This is when the decision regarding fight-or-flight comes into play.


3. Conscious competence

The more complex the skill is, the more you will have to invest into the endeavour. Conscious competence consistently requires persistence and dedication to form, even when it comes to the simple things like pushing your hips back whilst lowering a deadlift. Coincidentally, such simple cues can also be difficult to internalise completely. While the mind and body may be acutely aware of the function and execution of individual aspects of a skill, it is still working to ensure that it all “flows” into one another to achieve a synchronised harmony. In the real world, you might see this occur when one occasionally focuses on a cue but at the expense of another similarly important cue.


4. Unconscious competence

Further on down the road, there will be a point in time when you find that executing a skill has worked its way into being practically second nature. This is defined as unconscious competence and while it isn’t technically considered as mastery, improving upon it will be less resource-intensive as compared to the previous stages. The amount of practise you get continues to matter, but the quality of it is of paramount importance as well. Reneging on your internal checklist can cause bad habits to surface and even cause degradation in competence. Even the most grizzled of veterans adhere to their mental regimen; your focus at and from this point will be to further refine that level of discipline.


Ask for help when needed and get their feedback in order to progress to the next level. Take a step back and assess how you can get better, and don’t let your ego control your actions or attitudes.


 It is important to be honest and real with yourself about your experience and proficiency. But it is important to not let difficulty overrule the potential to become great or reap the benefits of completing it.


It's never too late to pick up a new skill. While the conscious stages of learning are known to be tougher, it is where the bulk of our actions take effect and are most keenly felt. Being honest with your efforts will allow you to stay grounded as you work towards improving your proficiency, and asking for help as it’s needed can generate feedback that will put you on the fast (not overnight) track to the next level. It’s both a mind and body game, so do your best and try to enjoy the process!