Close this window to return to Business Writings

Attaining Mastery

Many years ago, when I was beginning the Training & Development Department at Mervyn's Department Stores (Dayton-Hudson Corporation), I became aware of this concept; essentially it says that everyone goes through four basic levels of understanding whenever they learn a new skill, task, or activity. These levels are:

1) Unconsciously Incompetent (They don't know they don't know how to accomplish the skill, task, or activity.)
2) Consciously Incompetent (They know they don't know how to accomplish the skill, task, or activity.)
3) Consciously Competent (They know how, but need to concentrate to perform the skill, task, or activity.)
4) Subconsciously Competent (They know how to accomplish the skill, task or activity without thinking about it.)

Let’s take learning to drive a car as an example; we could explain the process in this way:

If you walked into a first grade class and said, "I have a problem.  I have two cars here at school, and I need to get them both home.  I can only drive one of the cars. Is there someone here who can drive my other car home for me?"

You would probably get a few volunteers.  Those who volunteered would most likely be unconsciously incompetent; they don't know they don't know how to drive.

Those that didn't raise their hands would probably be consciously incompetent; they know they don't know how to drive.

A few years later in driver’s training, you'd have a bunch of students who could drive, but had to concentrate on every step of the process to be sure they got it right; they are consciously competent.

And, finally, there are those of us who get into the car after a day on the job and a half-hour later arrive home without any memory of the trip, let alone driving the car; we're subconsciously competent.

Since this concept has been around for quite awhile, you’d think there’d be consensus on what it means. What I have discovered instead, is lots of confusion around this issue, as well as little understanding of its full significance. This paper was written to explain the levels of understanding in detail so those who find the concept valuable will be able to take full advantage of its potential.

First, here’s a quick summary of how some others have interpreted this concept.

The Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, Aptos, CA, added a fifth level, and  start out with intentionally incompetent.  These are people who know they don't know and aren't about to change the situation.  This is an interesting concept; however, I would group these people in the consciously incompetent group and define them as those who do not have the motivation to learn the skill, accomplish the task, or perform the activity.

Flemming Funch of the Transformational Processing Institute also uses five levels; however, he adds a level at the end, meta-consciously competent.

Funch’s fifth level, meta-consciously competent, differs from unconsciously competent in that the individual is not only capable of doing a skill, task, or activity without thinking about it; he is also fully aware, at all times, of what he is doing and why he is doing it.  The advantage, according to Funch, is that the individual is now capable of expressing oneself within the activity freely, without barriers, and is also capable of passing this knowledge onto others.  This interesting concept touches on a simlar concept of my own which I believe explains more completely what is going on.

Richard E. Pierce, The Real Secret of Psychological Reciprocity, does something very interesting; he moves consciously competent beyond unconsciously competent and states that it is a higher level of learning. This is because we are not only able to accomplish the task, but we also understand clearly why we do the task.  In other words, Pierce’s conscious competence is very similar to Funch’s meta-conscious competence. However, this particular change cripples the original intent of the basic concept by removing the third step and is, therefore, unacceptable.

Pierce also makes what is a relatively common mistake: underestimating the importance of the first level to understanding the entire process,

“They interact poorly with the activity and don't have a clue as to what's going on or why, and don't even care.”

The impact of the first level, unconscious incompetence, on our companies, communities, and society, is way beyond this simple explanation.

Level 1 – Unconsciously Incompetent

This is the first level and is concerned with the individual who is unaware they do not know the skill, how to accomplish the task, or perform the activity.  (While there may be times when a person is not aware that the skill, task, or activity even exists, that is of no concern for us here. If a person is not even aware of the existence of a skill, task, or activity, they have not yet begun the Learning Process; therefore they have not yet entered into the first level of understanding.)

What is significant about level one is that the individual is well aware of the skill, task, or activity, but is NOT aware they are not capable of accomplishing it.  In the driving example, the students who raised their hand knew full well what needed to be done, “drive my car home for me,” but were not aware they didn’t know how to drive.  It is critical the learning facilitator understands that the individual they are dealing with doesn’t know that they don’t know.  Handling this individual requires a different approach than the individual who knows they don’t know.  In fact, before any training can take place, the individual must be moved to level 2.

Level 1 individuals can be found in every profession and at every level within the profession.  The world is full of people who don’t know they don’t know and, therefore, attempt blindly to forge ahead, often leaving disaster in their wake: counselors who don’t know how to counsel, managers who don’t know how to manage, executives who don’t know how to lead, teachers who don’t know how to teach, and on and on.  The worst-case scenario is that group of individuals who not only don’t know they don’t know, but are convinced they know better than anyone else.  This is the state of arrogant ignorance, and I pity anyone who has to deal with an individual suffering from this dramatic misconception of themselves and their capabilities.

The sad reality is there is nothing that can be done with a person in this condition; it’s much like the alcoholic, who cannot be helped until they have acknowledged their addiction.

Level 2 – Consciously Incompetent

This level is a completely natural one on the way to Mastery. Most of the time when we set ourselves the goal of learning something new, we are well aware of the situation and only need to be convinced it is a temporary level that we will ultimately move through.  Of course, the time, energy, and commitment necessary to move through this level to the next depends on the difficulty of the task or activity; learning to ride a bicycle will most likely prove to be much easier than learning to race the Tour de France.

Level 3 – Consciously Competent

This level is much more critical than is normally understood. When one goes through this level properly, they come out the other end with good knowledge and understanding of the process and what’s needed for the activity or task to be accomplished successfully.  In a sense Pierce was right; this level is essential to a clear understanding of the task. Furthermore, a clear understanding of the task and why it is necessary is critical before one can pass this information onto others, before one can gain Mastery.

Level 4 – Subconsciously Competent

The originator of this concept chose this as the final level of understanding within the Learning Process. I agree that this is the level that must be reached before an individual can really be considered to have become truly competent in the performance of a specific task or activity.  However, achieving subconscious competence doesn’t necessarily mean the individual has achieved Mastery of the skill, task, or activity.

Mastery involves more than just being able to perform the skill, task, or activity subconsciously and without observable effort.  Mastery also involves, as both Funch and Pierce have hinted, a deep understanding of the process itself, as well as its importance.  With this knowledge the individual becomes more flexible in their approach, and gains the ability to pass on to others their skills and knowledge, the specific behaviors that make success possible.

It may seem Mastery would be a natural result of reaching level 4. After all, didn’t I just say one of the major goals of level 3 was to gain just this understanding of the process and its importance?

I did.  However, it may not be necessary to go through level 3 in order to reach level 4.  In fact, some of the most important activities we are involved in on a day-to-day basis, activities in which we are subconsciously competent, did not involve our passing through the third level in order to reach the fourth.  The most obvious example is communication.  Do you remember a time when you couldn’t talk, couldn’t communicate with those around you?  In this instance, you went directly from unconsciously incompetent to subconsciously competent. And, while some may believe they have attained Mastery in the skill of communication, listening to a true Master will quickly show otherwise, as will an honest appraisal of the many times they may have “communicated” a message very different from the one they intended.

There is no chance of attaining Mastery if one has not passed through level 3. Without conscious competence one cannot gain a deep understanding of the process, nor is one able to pass this information onto others. This is critical learning: one must go through level 3 in order to attain Mastery; therefore if they have skipped level 3 on their way to becoming subconsciously competent, they must return to that level and gain conscious competence.

It is interesting that people who have attained subconscious competence without going through level 3, often have a fear that understanding what it is they are is doing, will somehow get in the way, make it difficult to continue being successful … there’s a kind of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. A way must be found to convince these people that, in the long run, they and those they mentor will be much better off if they understand fully what it is they are doing that is working so well for them.

As a lecturer, one of my most important goals is to take subconsciously competent individuals, who had attained level 4 without going through level 3, back to level 3.  In other words, it was necessary for me to help these individuals gain conscious competence so that they could use their subconscious competency to attain Mastery.  So that they will know: what it is that they are doing and why it is working. To the individuals themselves, this process doesn’t seem to be learning as much as affirmation, more of an “aha” type experience than a new learning.

In my workshops I explain to the participants that they can expect three types of experiences during the time we will be together: first, they can expect to learn about some new things that they can seriously consider and/or be able to apply immediately; second, they will be affirmed in knowledge that they already have, gaining a full understanding of its value; and third, they will experience the conscious realization of knowledge that they only understood on the subconscious level. With this realization comes full knowledge of what they have been doing and why it is working; they will finally understand at a conscious level why they have been successful … they will experience the “aha” experience.

Return to Top

Copyright 2007, Brad Fregger