Four Steps On The Road to Mastery

There is a particular model of mastery that has appealed to me since it was first shared with me by a sales manager years ago. We all know that becoming an expert takes time and effort. According to Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, the amount of time it takes is quite explicit—10,000 hours. More recent research suggests that reaching mastery is a little more complicated than putting in 10,000 hours of practice.

The mastery model I’m thinking about doesn’t attempt to define how long it will take, what actions are required or what tools one needs to achieve mastery; it simply describes the stages one must move through to reach the level of expert. According to this model, there are four stages: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

step ladder labelled with the four learning stagesFrom Step Ladder by Milesbaim, Wikimedia Commons

The origin of the model is sometimes attributed to Maslow, but a version called the Conscious Competence Ladder was developed by Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International, in the 1970s. He described four rungs on his learning ladder as follows:

  1. Unconsciously unskilled: we don’t know that we don’t have this skill, or that we need to learn it.
  2. Consciously unskilled: we know that we don’t have this skill.
  3. Consciously skilled: we know that we have this skill.
  4. Unconsciously skilled: we don’t know that we have this skill (it just seems easy).[1]

I prefer the way it was described to me, although that may be due to my fondness for alliteration!

Step 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Ignorance is bliss. When we don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t yet know we need to learn it, there is no pressure or striving for mastery. Unfortunately, at this stage, there is also limited opportunity for growth.

Step 2: Conscious Incompetence

Awareness is a curse! Suddenly we realize how much we need to learn and that we’re starting from ground zero. This is when panic often sets in. But with a solid action plan and a clear understanding of what we need to learn, we begin to move forward.

Step 3: Conscious competence

At this stage we’ve already learned a lot and feel a growing sense of confidence in what we’ve learned. We still have to concentrate on what we’re doing as we consciously apply our knowledge and skills, but the feeling of being in over our heads subsides.

Step 4: Unconscious competence

Once we internalize what we’ve learned to the point that it emerges naturally as needed, we have reached the stage of unconscious competence. Our new skills and knowledge become familiar tools in our toolbox, accessed automatically in response to the needs of a particular situation. At this point, we are the experts and have achieved mastery. Getting here was hard work, but now using the skills we’ve learned seems effortless!

Using the Conscious Competency Model

For me, the most valuable part of this model was the knowledge that it applies to everyone and every learning environment. For some reason it made me feel better knowing that blissful ignorance was actually the natural precursor to awareness and also the logical first step on the road to mastery. More importantly, understanding the process for becoming an expert in any field meant that any field was open to me as long as I followed the process—very empowering!

In coaching and training situations, this model can be useful in helping your people prepare for and manage emotions they may feel when taking on major new learning challenges. It can also help you to be more aware of (and sensitive to) the fears and frustrations your people may experience on the learning journey. Finally, it can challenge you to develop structured learning programs that also support the development of teaching skills so that expertise, once obtained, can be readily shared.


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[1] Gordon Training International. Four Stages of Learning any New Skill

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