How comfortable are you learning something new?

We are always learning.

I use the levels of learning to help workshop participants understand their learning process. It helps participants be “okay” with the struggle that sometimes accompanies learning a new skill.

There are four phases:

– Unconscious incompetence

– Conscious incompetence

– Conscious competence

– Unconscious competence

When we don’t know that we don’t know

Before we begin wanting, or trying to learn something new, we often don’t really know that we don’t know. This is called unconscious incompetence.

Once we begin a journey of learning something new we quickly come to a realisation that there’s much we don’t yet understand. We become aware of how much effort is going to be required to improve. Once we reach this point we have what’s referred to as conscious incompetence. It’s an acute awareness of how little one knows, or can do. At this point many people want to give up as it seems too hard. What’s more we become handicapped by our self-consciousness. Most of us want to appear competent and in control so putting ourselves in a situation where we are anything but this can be extremely uncomfortable.

If we can tolerate the discomfit and motivate ourselves to keep persevering, then with application over time we reach conscious competence. This means we can do what’s needed but we still have to think about it. It takes concentration and effort but we can do it and have a sense of accomplishment in doing it.

If we continue to build knowledge, skills and experience we reach a point where we become unconsciously competent. We do things without having to think actively about it. To someone further down the learning tree watching someone who is unconsciously competent it seems effortless. Learn more about this here


To improve our level of mastery we have to initially break the learning down and pay attention to improving specific elements. Once we get better at the specifics we can usually increase the level of difficulty. This is sometimes called “chunks of attention”.  A useful example that helps us to understand this process is remembering when you learnt to drive a car.  In learning to drive there are many “chunks of attention” that have to be integrated to become a competent driver. For instance, there’s using the brakes, the indicators, the gears (if in a manual car also the clutch) and the mirrors. Additionally, there are the other cars on the road, the road rules, the instructor (and their level of skill, patience and calm). Potentially there’s also the condition of the road and the weather conditions to be considered too.

The levels of learning is something that’s been very real to me in the past 12 months as I’ve struggled with building my competence to compete as a sheep dog trialler. You can read more about this challenge by reading my blog on the link provided.

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Maryanne Martin