Most of us have heard of “The Learning Curve”, but typically only look at half of the equation, up through the point of mastery. In truth, the learning curve has two components: awareness and competence, yielding 4 distinct stages, and two different outcomes.
1. Unconscious Incompetence
This is the point when you don’t know how to do something, and you are unaware of how bad you are, or unaware of even the need to be able to do something in the first place. This stage is characterized by ignorance of the consequences of one’s lack of knowledge, such as a technical manager who does not see the need or value in maintaining positive social contacts with staff to become more effective. See the Dunning–Kruger effect for information on people of low ability miscategorizing their own skill.
2. Conscious Incompetence
At some point, we become aware of our deficiencies. That does not make them go away, but the awareness is the first step towards learning the skills or gaining the experience to improve. At this stage, we know we are no good at something but are making progress towards mastery.
3. Conscious Competence
At this point, we have acquired the skills necessary for success, but it still takes a good bit of concentration to perform adequately. For example, a teenager who has just passed the driving test may “technically” have the needed skills to drive, but only if considerable focus is given to the task, and the risk of failure still looms great on the horizon. This stage is often known as “the hell zone”
4. Unconscious Competence (A)
By this point, skill level has proceeded to mastery, and we no longer give much thought to what or how we do things anymore. For example, when was the last time you thought about all that was involved in walking, despite the number of muscles you actually have to coordinate. One look at an infant’s first-steps shows that we did indeed go through the other stages first. (So does a drunken stupor, for that matter)
Competence With Continued Consciousness (B)
It is not necessary that after we achieve mastery, we cease to be aware of what we are doing. For example, some people such as great artists or performers might not be able to articulate how the perform their art, despite attempts to do so. By the same token, there are “teachers” who have not only mastered a skill, but are also able to guide others through their own mastery. These people continue with mastery through exit point B.