I recently noticed a pattern in my learning. I realized that as I get better at something, the less I need to think about it to do it. The first area in that I detected this theme was through playing basketball. I can’t remember the first time I ever shot a basketball because it was so long ago, but shooting a jump shot with my non-dominant hand is still new to me. It feels really awkward and uncomfortable—even though I know what I’m supposed to do.

When shooting with my left hand, I need to think about my foot positioning, elbow, and arm alignment, how I’m gripping the ball, my release, my jumping, and my timing. It’s very much a conscious effort. On the flip side, shooting with my dominant right hand is an unconscious effort. I can shoot in many different situations and scenarios, and it takes almost no thought for me to produce a good shot[1].

More recently, this phenomenon applied to my learning experience with car racing. I only recently started racing two or three years ago, so I can still remember my first year of learning the fundamentals of the sport. My brain had to work hard to learn the intricacies. I had to focus on the grip of the tires, the racing line, braking points, throttle/brake inputs, lap time, and the feel of the car. Now when I race, I don’t spend nearly as much energy focusing on these things; it feels instinctual. If my rear is sliding out, I don’t have to think about what to do, I impulsively correct the steering wheel and lift off the throttle.

I was curious if this same conscious/unconscious learning progress was common, so I did some research to see if I could find any info. That is when I discovered the four stages of competence, aka the four stages of learning. This explains how learners move through four psychological states until they reach a stage of unconscious competence, where the skill becomes second nature.

The first stage is unconscious incompetence where the learner isn’t aware that a skill or knowledge gap exists. In the early days of my racing journey, I didn’t know the importance of being gentle with my steering inputs. I thought you had to be snappy and aggressive with the steering wheel and demand control over the car. I was unconsciously incompetent. I not only lacked that skill, but I didn’t know that it even existed[2].

The second stage is conscious incompetence which is when the learner is aware of a skill or knowledge gap and understands the importance of acquiring the new skill[3]. It’s in this stage that learning can begin. For me, this happened when I heard a professional driver mention how important it is to be gentle with your steering to maximize grip and car stability. Then I understood that you actually need to dance in tandem with the car and adjust with it instead of forcing it to do what you want. I now knew what I had to do but I didn’t yet know how to do it. I was consciously incompetent and ready to learn.

The third stage is conscious competence when the learner knows how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires practice, conscious thought, and hard work. After watching videos and practicing being gentle with my steering inputs, I was making concrete progress. But it still took a lot of thought and effort. Every turn entry I would remind myself to be smooth. Mid-turn, I would focus and then critique my steering inputs. After the corner exit, I would reflect on the aspects I did well and how I could have done better. I knew how to do it and was doing it, but I had to think a lot about it.

The fourth and final stage is unconscious competence or mastery. This is when the individual has enough experience with the skill that he or she can perform it so easily that they do it unconsciously. With my steering smoothness, I would say that I’m still progressing through the third stage. But when I reach this final stage, I will essentially be steering the car unconsciously. Any pro driver will tell you that during the fastest lap of their career, they were unconsciously driving their car. Every turn and physical input they made came naturally as if they never thought about it. This isn’t something that anyone can do. It requires someone to pass through all of the preliminary stages and into mastery to become skilled enough to achieve that level of finesse.

To make the fourth stage relatable to everyone, just think of how you write on a piece of paper. If I tell you to write down a sentence, you have the unconscious competence to do that. You don’t need to think hard about the shape of the letter, or where on the paper you’re writing; you just do it unconsciously.

Reaching unconscious competence is a key milestone because it frees up space in your limited bandwidth that you can now parlay into something else. For example, when I reach the level of unconscious competence for smooth steering, then I no longer need to think about my steering in the corners. I can then use that time to focus on the other racers around me or I can even think about the next upcoming turn or my overall race strategy to get ahead.

By understanding how we progress through these four stages, we can better tailor our learning process to supplement our learning growth and efficiency. If teachers/trainers understand what level their learners are currently in, then they can better help their learners. For example, a learner in stage one will respond differently to training than a learner in stage two. If someone doesn’t know there’s a problem, he or she is less likely to engage in the solution. On the other hand, if someone is in stage two, he or she may just need additional practice rather than training.

In AI and computer technology, this model is also valuable to the algorithms used in adaptive learning technologies. By knowing which stage a learner is at for a particular topic, an adaptive learning platform can select content on that topic that will help the learner reach the next stage. It can even use assessments to demonstrate to learners that they have skills gaps, thus moving them from stage one to stage two.

If you’re not an expert at something, it’s easy to want to spend hours trying to make/do it perfect the first time. But at this stage, you should be focusing on repetition and experience. When you’re first starting a new skill, you should be focusing on quantity and not quality. This is because as you produce in volume then your quality increases congruently through trial and error (the same as practice and experience), which is proven to be the most effective way of learning.

On the flip side, if you spend all your time and energy on quality from the get-go, then you will be spending an overwhelming amount of energy trying to use skills that you don’t yet have. You will also likely be discouraged by the results of that finished product because of your high expectations and poor quality despite working really hard.

This is another reason to focus on the long term. Small incremental progress compounds into massive growth over time. It may be hard to see or understand this initially, but that really is the way growth works.

If you gained nothing from this essay then take away these two points: First, if you practice even just a tiny amount of something every single day then that will multiply over time and result in massive growth in the long term. Secondly, for the hobby that you like doing, there are skills that can make you better that you don’t even know to exist. Asking the right questions and remaining humble is the first step to learning and growing.

[1] When I’m on a streak making many shots in a row, I am actually not thinking about my shot at all… Until I eventually think about how high my streak is and feel pressure not to miss, which is when I in fact miss and break the streak. Conversely, when I’m on a dry spell, I start to overthink my shooting form to try to find and correct my error, which leads to me shooting even worse. And then my shooting begins to feel awkward and becomes a conscious effort again until I find a way to revert to just doing.

[2] Now that I’m a lot more knowledgeable and skillful in racing, I can spot areas of unconscious incompetence in my friends who are new to the sport and try to race on the simulator. The most common mistakes they make are not braking in a straight line and they try to accelerate too hard in the corner which leads them to spin out and crash into the wall. They make the same exact mistake at every corner and they don’t understand why. If I were to explain to them their issues, that would move them into stage two. If I spent a day with a pro racer, they could probably move me into stage two for a lot of things that I don’t know about racing.

[3] Keyword: incompetence. To reach the fourth stage, you must first pass through the first and second stages. The second stage requires you to admit your incompetence in order to pursue learning and growth. Without this confession, you cannot learn. This is why people who think or pretend they already know everything are usually the most ignorant. “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever” – Confucius.