Let’s make something explicit: just exactly what is that “learning curve” you keep hearing about?

I can’t remember where I first heard this idea, but it has been around for awhile: whenever you learn something new, you go through four stages.

  1. Unconscious incompetence.
  2. Conscious incompetence.
  3. Conscious competence.
  4. Unconscious competence.

Two of these stages are very comfortable. Two of them are not. Let’s go through the implications of each stage.

Unconscious incompetence

This is a very comfortable place, actually. You don’t know that you don’t know. You therefore have no feeling of lack or shortcoming. Our old saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” results from this.

Another way to say it is that you don’t know what you don’t know. The average 10-year-old thinks it’s a cruel adult conspiracy that we won’t let them drive–after all, it looks simple. (I suspect it’s even worse these days, when skill at a video game can give strong “evidence” that the child could handle a real automobile.)

I see this in speech class fairly frequently. “I know how to talk. I can chat easily with strangers. I know how to write a paper. This should be easy.” Usually, such a student figures out fairly quickly there are areas s/he hasn’t mastered. That’s the beginning of learning.

Conscious incompetence

It is also the beginning of discomfort. People don’t like feeling ignorant. You don’t really realize how much there is to learn until you tackle it. But our school system doesn’t teach us how to deal with that discomfort. In fact, it actively discourages taking chances, since a failure will go on your record permanently. More common than the overconfident student is the one who has tried to give a speech in public, for various reasons, who says, “I don’t want to have to take a speech class. I don’t know how to give a speech.”

My standard response: “Good! You’re in the right place! This is a class for people who don’t already know how to give a speech.” But I know what they really mean. Along with a natural fear of the unknown comes the learned response: “I can’t afford to take a class if I don’t know for certain I can get an A or a B, because if my GPA falls, I could lose my scholarship or other financial aid. And it will be on my transcript for the rest of my life.”

Still, the only way to get beyond this stage is to stick with it. Because of the discomfort, a lot of people quit in this stage.

Take driving, again. In this stage you try to give just the right amount of gas while engaging the clutch at the right time while steering out of your parking space, only to kill the engine. You may feel hopeless.

Conscious competence

The third step is also uncomfortable, though not as uncomfortable as the second stage. Here, you know what to do and how to do it, but you have to consciously think about each action you take. It’s awkward. Imagine trying to work your lungs, beat your heart, maintain the proper blood pressure, etc., consciously. You would soon die, because you would forget about your kidneys or some such.

Think back to driving again. You’ve managed to not kill the engine, and have even worked out how to step on the clutch, shift gears, release the clutch, all without taking your eyes off the road or forgetting to accelerate when appropriate. But it’s incredibly exhausting, and you dare not turn on the radio for fear of breaking your rhythm. You get some charge for doing it “right,” but you can’t really enjoy it.

Unconscious competence

Finally, we are back to comfortable again. You have internalized whatever it is that you are learning.

You can turn into the Wal-Mart parking lot and steer with one hand, shift gears with the other, roll up your window, light a cigarette, and talk to your friend all at the same time, because you don’t have to think consciously about it.

Life always throws curves

Learning curves are inevitable, regardless of whether you’re trying to learn driving, bowling, bookkeeping, or speaking. This even works on a micro level, like when you’re trying to eliminate your use of “uh” when speaking.

Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re learning. But if you’re really learning, expect to be uncomfortable.

Next time, we’ll look at comfort in learning from another angle.

What has been your greatest learning curve? When did you realize that sticking too it paid off?

Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker cc

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