How to Get Up to Speed When The Learning Curve is Steep

How willing are you to try something new when you think the learning curve will be steep?  Fear of failure can hold us back from trying something new, but there’s another way to look at it that I’d like to share with you.  You’re all familiar with the concept of a learning curve, where the learning is straight uphill and over time you gain competency.  Think about the last time you jumped into something you perceived as “difficult.” What is it that helped you make the decision to dive?  As I reflected on this, I remembered something I learned that I think is really helpful to remind yourself the next time you try something challenging or new.

Many years ago, a former employer of mine introduced me to the four stages of competence.  I was working as an executive recruiter, which was my first sales job, and it was all new to me.  There was lots of cold calling and business development from the ground up.  He shared these stages of competence with me to help me understand the development process and how it would unfold:

1) Unconscious incompetence – I think of this as the “deer in headlights” stage.  At this stage, not only do we not know how to do something, we are unaware of how much we don’t know. We need to recognize our own incompetence, and the value of developing, before we can move on to the next stage. The length of time spent at this stage is affected by our level of motivation and our desire to learn.  At this stage in my recruiting experience, I knew I was clueless but I didn’t realize how completely clueless I really was.  As I gained some hands on experience and faced some failures, I began to learn some practical knowledge.

2) Conscious incompetence – The more we know, the more we realize that we do not know, which helps us to identify learning opportunities and recognize the value of developing new skills.  Making mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.  We learn from the mistakes that we make and get better as we go.  To relate this back to my recruiting experience, at this point I had a heightened awareness of how much there was to learn and through an after-action-review process, I internalized the concepts and was ready to move on to the next level of competency.

3) Conscious competence – At this stage, we understand or know how to do something, but we need to be focused and very consciously engaged in order to execute the task at hand.   In my experience, I remember having a growing consciousness about my proficiency in some areas that had previously seemed challenging.  I recognized my growing proficiency and felt more confident.  At the same time, I was likely to be more scripted in my approach, a little more in my head and anxious about getting it right rather than being fully present.

4) Unconscious competence – By this point, we have had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and we can do it easily. We might even be able to multi-task more easily at this point. We might be able to teach others some of what we have learned.  For me, in this unconscious competency stage, things began to flow much more readily and I had moments of feeling like things “suddenly” were going well.  In fact, the seeds of effort planted all the way along were paying off.

Sometimes when we're learning something new, we're moving through these stages of competence and something gets in our way. We begin to doubt our abilities and wonder if we're on the right track. The truth is, learning curves are real and we all go through them. What if the struggle has nothing to do with your ability and only reflects where you are in the learning process? Not where you'll end up, but just your current experience? How can you learn more effectively? Think about what works for you. Trust the process and persevere. If you really want it, you'll find your way to unconscious competence. You're on your way...stay the course.

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