The Four Mandatory Stages To Becoming an Expert in Any New Skill

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.” ~ Abigail Adams

In human psychology, there are four stages of learning that transition an individual from the state of incompetence to competence in any skill.

This theory of “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skills” was developed by Noel Burch in 1970 and also often referred to as the Competency Ladder from the perspective of acquiring new skills.

The Theory explains that initially when we start to learn anything, we even don’t know what we don’t know. Yes, we even don’t know what we don’t know and that keeps most people stuck like a frog in the well who doesn’t know what the ocean looks like. At this level of competency, it is very difficult to even fathom the thought of a different world, because we are not able to relate to that world.

But when we become aware about our incompetence, we work on improving those skills and soon we learn and consciously act in a competent manner.

With enough practice, we become so competent that we are even unconscious of our competence, and that’s the last stage of competence, where competent behavior becomes your second nature.

Let’s try to understand each of these levels in details:

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                                                                                    (Image courtesy: wikipedia)

1. Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage, the individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficiency in his learning. He may even deny the usefulness of the skill. This stage requires an individual to recognize his own incompetence and the value of the new skill before moving on to the next stage.

The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn. Either he has to be motivated to learn, if it is a voluntary learning, or if it is a job requirement, then there must be a fear of punishment as a stimulus.

There is no or very low scope of using intuition to handle the task at this stage.

2. Conscious Incompetence

The next stage of evolution arrives through an increase in awareness by getting deeper into the subject. In this stage of conscious incompetence, though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he does recognize the deficit in his learning, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit.

Being mindful of the incompetence and the requirement of skill, the individual starts to put efforts into learning. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage, meaning the learner would mostly not be in a position to rightly analyze the correct action in this stage.

3. Conscious Competence

In the next stage, the individual understands or knows how to do something. By putting efforts, making mistakes in the earlier stage, the individual is now competent at this stage, but demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration.

It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill. The learner is able to make the right analysis of the situation, thanks to his or her efforts and concentration on the process.

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” ~ Niels Bohr

4. Unconscious Competence

This is the final stage of mastering any skills. Upon reaching at this stage, the individual has already put so much time into practicing a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. This is because skill has become a part of the sub-conscious mind, and it doesn’t require the active involvement of your brain.

Here, you become so competent that you are even unconscious about your competence. Now, you have arrived in the category of expert, where you intuitively know what is the right action to be taken in any given situation, given that you have handled a vast variety of similar situations already.

You can take any example from your life, where you consider yourself an expert, and you’ll realize that all these stages need to be transitioned before you gain mastery in that skill.

Let’s take a simple example of traveling through these four stages when you learn how to drive a car.

Initially, you were even not aware of what you don’t know (unconscious incompetence). Only if you have a strong stimulus to learn i.e. if you want to independently travel on your own or have fun or adventure, then only you would put in efforts in learning how to drive the car. You commit mistakes in driving, maybe getting some minor scratches or dent on your vehicle is the cost you pay for learning in this stage (conscious incompetence).

Then you reach the next stage of competence (conscious competence), but you are actively concentrating on when to apply brakes or when to put the accelerator on–you are consciously competent here.

Finally, you reach the last stage where you even don’t need to pay any attention to the car’s functioning. You wouldn’t even think about putting the key into the ignition. You wouldn’t even realize that the car is already speeding on the highway, and you are comfortably chatting with your accompanying colleague or friend, without there being any need of conscious effort to drive the car. This is the stage where you have reached the apex of your learning stages — you have attained the unconscious competence.

The below quote by Vernon Howard aptly sums up the right approach towards learning and crossing all the stages of learning.

“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn, and you will.”

(Above is a brief extract from my bestselling book The Magic of Accelerated Learning)

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About Som Bathla

Som Bathla loves to and has written many books on developing a growth oriented mindset, increasing productivity, better time management and other areas of personal development. You may check out all his books at He has good plans to continuously create more action guides to help readers to lead a resourceful life. He lives in NCR of Delhi, India with his family. While not working, he loves to spend time with his family, traveling and exploring the next best things.

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