The Most Dangerous Stage of Learning

Early in my career, one of my favorite things to teach was Maslow’s four stages of learning.  I still think it’s one of the most valuable and profound pieces of information I have come across in my learning.

Here they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence.
  2. Conscious incompetence.
  3. Conscious competence.
  4. Unconscious competence.

It’s much better if you translate them to “simple-ese:”

    1. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Although every phase has its pitfalls, this phase is clearly the most dangerous because if we stay in this phase, we don’t get a chance to improve our lives.  We never know what we missed out on, if there was a better way, or worse, how ignorant we really are about so many things.

No one wants to ever be labeled ignorant, especially in a field they feel they are smart about.  It’s only the open-minded, the constantly seeking, and the willing-to-be-a-little-vulnerable among us that truly have a chance to move into stage two of learning.

    1. You begin to become aware of what you don’t know.

This phase can make you feel a little stupid, but at least you can start to do something about it!  In stage 1, you couldn’t even do that.  It’s time to find a teacher or seek knowledge about something that someone else has brought to your attention.

You can choose to go deeper or stay uninformed, but at least you’ve made a conscious decision about it.  If you choose to learn more, you can go to stage three.

    1. You start to learn and practice a new skill, and it takes concentration to do it.

Whenever we start learning a new skill, it can feel like we are slow and that we need a lot of resources to first learn it.  Sometimes, if it’s too hard, we might even give up.

It might help to know that your brain is wired to conserve resources that don’t directly contribute to your survival, which is why you might feel such a pull to stop.  Those of us who lumber through and stick with it get a reward on the other side, in stage four.

    1. You’ve learned the new thing and you can almost do it in your sleep.

Even this phase has a pitfall.  We can get bored or be sloppy since we don’t have to concentrate as hard.  Sometimes it’s better to move back into stage three and go back and forth between three and four, so that we don’t slip into complacency.

At each stage of learning, the emotions you feel will play a big part in your success, even to the point of whether you will stick with it or sometimes even start in the first place.  Discovering how to become aware and conscious of what you are going through in each of Maslow’s learning stages will make you much more successful at just about anything you take on.