Apply the Four Steps of Learning

I wrote previously about the four stages of learning. We progress from unconscious incompetence (“you don’t know what you don’t know”), to conscious incompetence (“you know what you don’t know”), then conscious competence (“you have a solid grasp on the subject matter, but you have to think about it”), and finally unconscious competence (“you know the subject matter like the back of your hand”).

How does one apply this paradigm to learning?

Consider a person who is unaware (i.e., unconsciously incompetent) of the concept of emotional intelligence. Perhaps this person has a measure of EI without consciously realizing or understanding it. Or perhaps this person has developed habits of thought and behavior that discourage self-assessment of blind spots and drive away others.

What should a person do in this situation?

  1. Survey the landscape. Become aware of what you don’t know so that you can progress beyond unconscious incompetence (a.k.a., “utter ignorance”). Google and Wikipedia can make this initial process quite easy. It’s not that you’ll become a subject matter expert from reading Wikipedia articles, but you will at least have a place to begin digging deeper. Perhaps the impetus behind your pursuit of learning is a challenge or weakness you want to overcome, or an opportunity or strength you want to develop. For instance, if you are trying to figure out why your relationships are failing or if you want to get ahead in your career, perhaps you will stumble across the concept of emotional intelligence. You are now beginning to become conscious of your incompetence (or “areas for improvement,” to put it euphemistically).
  2. Outline the core concepts that you need to learn, and make a plan. This will set you on the path toward conscious competence. As you progress in your learning, you might discover that areas you initially thought were important turned out to be peripheral. This is part of the process of graduating from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. For example, perhaps you discover the importance of knowing yourself (intrapersonal skills), as well as developing interpersonal, communications, and relationship skills. Instead of unconsciously “floating along” with your habits that run counter to sound EI principles, you are ready to overcome your weaknesses and challenges.
  3. Consistently and systematically pursue the discipline of learning. This will get you to the level of conscious competence. You will learn how the different areas of the subject relate to each other, as well as how the subject relates to other fields and disciplines. You will overcome your ignorance and unlearn bad habits that were setting you back in ways that you had not previously realized. You will replace these bad habits with positive patterns of thought and behavior.
  4. Recognize where you came from once you reach unconscious competence. Though it’s thrilling and rewarding to know your subject matter so well that it’s “second nature,” the danger is becoming unapproachable. Guard against talking over people’s heads, patronizing or insulting them, or being impatient with them due to your perception of their ignorance. Chances are, if you can gently help them toward attaining conscious incompetence (so that they start to acknowledge what they don’t know), you will be the first person they will ask for tips on how to reach conscious competence.

Finance professionals should never stop learning. We have to constantly apply ourselves to develop and grow. We can routinely progress through the four stages and apply the paradigm of learning whether we are developing technical skills, knowledge of our field and industry, social and relational skills, or more.

In what areas could you benefit from working through the four stages of competence? How can you help others achieve success in the process?