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The Four Stages of Learning a Skill

stages of learningAccording to a classic psychological model of individual learning, before we acquire any skill there are four stages of learning or competence that we go through. 

It's probably no surprise to anyone that personal development, like anything else, entails becoming skilled at various positive behaviors. How could it not?

Everything we do requires awareness first, then learning and application and then practice. Merely reading about a healthy self-concept, developing humor, resilience or positive thinking isn't going to get us there. 

We must first figure out what skills we require and then proceed to incorporate them into our thinking and behavior. Easier said than done - right?

If we understand that there is, indeed, a process and that it takes place in stages, we can be more patient with ourselves and realize that nothing happens overnight. By understanding the four stages of learning a skill, we can concentrate on the learning process itself and not feel bad about where we're at and why we don't know everything already.

Here are the four stages of learning any skill, and then as it relates to personal development:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    At this stage you don't know what your problems are or how to identify them. You may or may not know that something is not working, but you have no idea what it is or how to go about fixing it. In other words you don't know what you don't know.

  2. You are going through life feeling that something is missing; you're plodding along but not really paying attention - you just stumble along. 

  3. Conscious Incompetence
    With conscious incompetence you are aware of a lot of your problems, but you don't know how to correct them. You may understand what is needed, but have no knowledge or confidence in how to get it. You may feel overwhelmed by how much you need to learn. 

  4. Soon you begin to realize that you are unhappy with yourself, your relationships, your career and you're stuck in a rut. You know you have to do something but have no idea what or how to go about it. You start reading about personal development but feel overwhelmed with how much there is to learn.

  5. Conscious Competence
    In this stage you know how to correct your problems but it will take time and practice. You know what you know, and can apply it as long as you are concentrating and focusing on it. You have to think your way through the process and it feels unnatural and foreign. It is outside of your comfort zone.

  6. You have realized that there is no other way to improve, but to apply yourself read and do what is needed. It's time to put to practice what you have read and discovered. It is difficult, yet fun because you are stretching yourself, growing and your life is becoming more meaningful and productive.

  7.  Unconscious Competence 
    You know what you know and you no longer have to think about it. You have become so skilled at it that it's automatic and comes naturally. In fact, you do it unconsciously because you no longer have to think about it. Speaking your native language is an example of unconscious competence.
    So here you are on the path of personal development. You know it's an ongoing process, but because you've incorporated many positive habits, positive thinking and positive behaviors, your life is less of a struggle and more of a progressive journey. You don't think in terms of obstacles; you think in terms of opportunities and ways in which you can improve yourself. 

learning to skate As I've mentioned the four stages of learning pertain to how we learn anything in life. Until we know better, most things seem easy. For example, take riding a bicycle. Before you knew how to ride one, it probably looked easy until you got on and tried to ride it. Then you realized how incompetent you were at it. 

The same with roller or ice-skating. First you had to learn how get up and keep your balance. Not so easy! Then you'd fall a few times and maybe even get a little bruised (ouch!). In order to get better, you had to keep practicing until you got really good at it. After a while, low and behold, you no longer had to think about what you were doing and it became smooth sailing. 

So it is with any skill. Keep improving and working on yourself until it becomes second nature. Not only will you get the most from life, you will live it to your full potential.



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"The purpose of learning is growth."

Mortimer Adler






"Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence." 

Abigail Adams




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